It’s entirely out of character for an ambitious careerist like Elise Stefanik to offer to give up power even before it’s been handed to her, which means one of two things must be happening. One: The conservative revolt in the caucus against her ascension is more serious than we knew, forcing Stefanik to make a concession up front in exchange for votes. “Hand me Cheney’s leadership role now and I’ll hand it back in 2023 so that you can elect a hardcore MAGA type like Jim Banks. Scout’s honor.”
Two: Stefanik is playing the long game as usual and is hoping to land a tryout during which time she can prove herself to skeptics. She’ll promise the hardcore MAGAs up front that she won’t run in the next leadership election and then use the next 18 months to impress them by becoming the Trumpiest House Republican this side of Marjorie Taylor Greene. She’ll praise Trump effusively and extensively and vote to the right of Jim Jordan on everything that comes her way. By the time 2023 rolls around, the MAGA wing of the party will be so enthused about her they’ll decide not to hold her to her pledge to stand down.
Gotta be one or the other. There’s no way Stefanik would volunteer for a demotion because she has other professional priorities.
The New York Republican is telling her GOP colleagues that she intends to finish out the rest of this current cycle as conference chair if she is ultimately elevated to the No. 3 leadership position, according to multiple Republican lawmakers familiar with the conversations.
Then, in the new Congress, she intends to seek the top job on the House Education and Labor Committee, those sources said, a longtime priority for her…
Stefanik, a moderate turned Trump ally, is also vowing to toe the party line and not buck leadership whenever they are whipping for or against something — a promise intended to assuage colleagues that she will not rock the boat like Cheney.
“We must not rush into a de-facto coronation of any handpicked replacement whose voting record does not reflect the views of the conference,” said hard-right freshman Rep. Bob Good in a statement. “We must select someone who will wholeheartedly support the conservative membership.” Stefanik’s reportedly set to appear before the Freedom Caucus on Monday to reassure them that she’ll be no impediment to the MAGA agenda, such as it is. The whole reason she’s in line to replace Cheney is that she’ll keep her mouth shut when asked to do so, right?
She realizes, correctly, that the first step to holding power is gaining power and so she’s willing to make whatever promises she needs to facilitate that. She surely also understands that the House GOP leadership in 2023, if/when the party takes back the majority, may be less stable than everyone assumes. WaPo reports today that some of Trump’s advisors have been encouraging him to withhold support from Kevin McCarthy for Speaker in 2023 and that Trump is “intrigued” by the idea. If Trump stabs McCarthy in the back, that would create a vacuum at the top that could be filled by Steve Scalise or Jim Jordan or some other hardcore MAGA rep. And if that happens, the conservatives in the caucus may be more amenable to keeping a RINO like Stefanik in leadership. If Jordan’s steering the ship, why not have Stefanik in a visible spot as a young, moderate, female face of the party? It’d be good PR with little risk of her doing any harm on policy.
As for Liz Cheney, she’s settling in for a long fight against Trump and Trumpism from the back benches of the House. Another WaPo story about her upcoming primary war in Wyoming opens with this amazing detail from last month’s House GOP retreat:
When staff from the National Republican Congressional Committee rose to explain the party’s latest polling in core battleground districts, they left out a key finding about Trump’s weakness, declining to divulge the information even when directly questioned about Trump’s support by a member of Congress, according to two people familiar with what transpired.
Trump’s unfavorable ratings were 15 points higher than his favorable ones in the core districts, according to the full polling results, which were later obtained by The Washington Post. Nearly twice as many voters had a strongly unfavorable view of the former president as had a strongly favorable one.
Cheney was alarmed, she later told others, in part because Republican campaign officials had also left out bad Trump polling news at a March retreat for ranking committee chairs. Both instances, she concluded, demonstrated that party leadership was willing to hide information from their own members to avoid the truth about Trump and the possible damage he could do to Republican House members, even though the NRCC denied any such agenda.
That’s a lovely illustration of “authoritarian blindness,” in which important information is suppressed by underlings due to fear that revealing it will anger the person in power. (See, e.g., Chernobyl and the original COVID outbreak in Wuhan in 2019.) House Republicans in swing districts need to know if Trump is unpopular locally to help them formulate an effective midterm message. The NRCC is the organization charged with gathering that information and informing that messaging. If they really did cover up discouraging data about Trump from their own members, it’s probably because they feared that sharing it would get back to you-know-who and he’d start running a vendetta against the organization.
Forced to choose between risking their own jobs and those of the people they serve, in other words, they chose the latter. Authoritarian blindness.
But there may be a deeper logic at work. Since 2016, the Republican Party’s top priority has been making sure that Trump doesn’t bolt and take his voters with him. And the thing that’s most likely to lead him to do that is if he perceives that Republicans in Washington aren’t giving him the “loyalty” he believes he deserves. Every cultish act of solidarity on his behalf by the party establishment since the 2016 convention until now, with Cheney’s looming ouster just the latest example, can be understood in those terms. Congressional Republicans know that a meaningful segment of the base is more devoted to him than to the party, just as they also know that Trump would have no institutional or personal qualms about ditching the GOP if he thought he would gain more from doing so than he’d lose. So maybe the NRCC figured that sharing the polling data with House members might do more harm than good to the party by incentivizing them to distance themselves from Trump, which would then piss Trump off and possibly encourage him to mount more MAGA primary challenges to Republican incumbents or to quit the GOP altogether.
That insanely unstable dynamic, in which a major political party is essentially hostage to one guy’s whims, is what McCarthy, Stefanik, and Cheney are each trying to navigate for the next 18 months. Good luck to ’em all.