Is Liz Cheney anti-anti-Trump now?

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

My triple-bank-shot hot take on Cheney saying she’d have difficulty supporting DeSantis in a 2024 primary is that it’s a strategic anti-endorsement. She knows that if DeSantis challenges Trump, the MAGA cult will accuse him of being a Liz Cheney in Trumpy clothing. So here she is helping him out by heading off that argument before it gets rolling.

…Nah, I don’t really believe it.

It’s too clever by half. Surely Cheney is simply stating her honest opinion about DeSantis:

Ms. Cheney suggested she was animated as much by Trumpism as Mr. Trump himself. She could support a Republican for president in 2024, she said, but her redline is a refusal to state clearly that Mr. Trump lost a legitimate election in 2020.

Asked if the ranks of off-limits candidates included Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, whom many Republicans have latched onto as a Trump alternative, she said she “would find it very difficult” to support Mr. DeSantis in a general election.

“I think that Ron DeSantis has lined himself up almost entirely with Donald Trump, and I think that’s very dangerous,” Ms. Cheney said.

If DeSantis is the only Republican who stands a chance against Trump in a primary and Cheney can’t bring herself to support him, is she … effectively anti-anti-Trump?

I don’t know. Note that she says she’d have trouble supporting DeSantis in a *general election.* There are plenty of Never Trumpers who doubtless feel the same way, alarmed by his occasional abuses of power, but who’d nonetheless prefer him as GOP nominee to a known coup-plotter.

The true significance of Cheney’s comments to the Times about DeSantis is how they foreshadow the trouble he’ll have pleasing everyone when he’s asked his opinion on the campaign trail about the outcome of the 2020 election. Trump has worked hard to establish “rigged or not?” as a litmus test for Republican populists. Knowing that, it’s unimaginable that candidate DeSantis would ever flatly affirm that Biden won fair and square. More likely is that he’ll try to talk around the subject the same way he did two days after the election in 2020, when he suggested that Republican voters should lobby their state legislatures for “remedies” if the election rules in their state weren’t followed.

That sounded suspiciously like DeSantis wanted Republican legislatures to try to overturn the popular vote in swing states won by Biden, a scheme championed by John Eastman. But it was phrased vaguely enough to give him plausible deniability about malign intent if challenged on it. He said they should pursue “remedies” if the popular vote were tainted by lawbreaking, didn’t he? It was conditional. Surely we’d expect a state legislature to step in if an election were conducted illegally.

That position is also too clever by half for a GOP primary, though. Trump won’t let DeSantis get away with trying to be half-pregnant when it comes to election fraud, which will leave the governor in a bind. If he hedges on whether there was fraud, he’s damaged goods in a primary that’ll be decided by an electorate that’s dominated by election truthers. If he agrees with Trump that there was fraud, he’s damaged goods to swing voters and to the minority of Republicans like Cheney who want to stop the “stop the steal” conspiracy theorizing.

Worse, if DeSantis entertains the “rigged election” narrative he’ll undermine his rationale for running for president. He’s hoping to pitch himself to GOP voters as Trump without the baggage, the electable populist who can deliver a popular vote win for the GOP for the first time in 20 years. Pandering to them by claiming that the last election was stolen would mean that we can’t trust the popular vote count — which in turns means that maybe Trump is electable, and in fact might have been properly elected in 2020 before being victimized by Democratic chicanery.

DeSantis might be forced by circumstance to adopt a moronic version of the electability argument instead: “Yes, Trump won the popular vote and is as electable as I am. But unlike him, I’ll figure out a way to stop the Democrats from cheating next time!” Imagine the GOP primary being decided by which candidate has the sounder strategy for preventing alleged Democratic “mules” from flooding drop boxes with phony ballots.

As for Cheney herself running in 2024, that seems increasingly likely but also increasingly dangerous for the anti-Trump cause. Today’s Times piece notes that she’s raised a bundle of money this year but has spent only half of it on her primary in Wyoming, “spurring speculation that she was saving money for future efforts against Mr. Trump.” But note this line from the same piece: “[I]t’s far from clear that she could be a viable candidate in the current Republican Party, or whether she has interest in the donor-class schemes about a third-party bid, in part because she knows it may just siphon votes from a Democrat opposing Mr. Trump.”

Running in the GOP primary might also siphon votes from a top-tier Republican who stands a chance of defeating Trump. A Trump versus DeSantis versus Cheney race would weaken DeSantis’s chances, however marginally, by denying him some votes from the GOP’s small “Anyone But Trump” wing that would go to Cheney instead. If she skips the primary and runs in the general election as an independent, meanwhile, she risks drawing votes from swing voters who aren’t crazy about either of their choices (especially if we get a Biden/Trump rematch) but who might have preferred the Democrat reluctantly on “Anyone But Trump” grounds until Cheney gave them another option. Result: Trump is reelected as the Democratic vote splits.

The only way she might be able to run as an indie without hurting the Democrat is by being upfront about her strategy during the campaign. Something like this: “I am not a liberal and I am not a Democrat. If elected president, I won’t support Democratic policies. I’m running because I’m a conservative and conservatives deserve a vision for the country that’s different from Trumpism.” If she framed her campaign that way, pitching herself exclusively to anti-Trump righties, she might hurt Trump more than she hurts the Democrat.

I’ll leave you with this passage from the Times piece, which sums up the last seven years of Republican politics in three short paragraphs.

When she attended the funeral last year for Mike Enzi, the former Wyoming senator, Ms. Cheney welcomed a visiting delegation of G.O.P. senators. As she greeted them one by one, several praised her bravery and told her keep up the fight against Mr. Trump, she recalled.

She did not miss the opportunity to pointedly remind them: They, too, could join her.

“There have been so many moments like that,” she said at the bank, a touch of weariness in her voice.

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David Strom 4:01 PM on October 05, 2022