Comment: In ousting Cheney, meaning of ‘RINO’ has flipped

The Republican Party now appears to value allegiance to Trump over traditional policy issues.

By Liz Mair / Special To The Washington Post

When Donald Trump entered the 2016 presidential race, he was dismissed early on as a “RINO” — a Republican in Name Only — by Republicans across the spectrum: Former Mitt Romney consultant Katie Packer Gage called Trump “sort of the definition of a RINO; he’s just decided to be a Republican, you know, after cozying up to the Democratic Party for a lot of years.” TownHall columnist Kurt Schlichter didn’t use the acronym but assessed Trump as a “finger-to-the-wind charlatan” who compared unfavorably with “actual serious conservative candidates.”

The accusations made sense: Trump was unabashed about his past willingness to support Democrats. In a 1999 “Meet The Press” interview, he described himself as “very pro-choice.” He flipped on his initial support for the Iraq War sooner than most Republicans. In a 2015 “60 Minutes” interview, he indicated support for a form of single-payer health coverage.

And make no mistake, “RINO” is an accusation: The charge has long been intramural Republican shorthand for an ideological heretic; someone insufficiently faithful to conservative values. It was the sentiment that helped tea party-era figures such as Christine O’Donnell (“I’m not a witch”) purge Delaware’s former governor and congressman Mike Castle (for whom I briefly consulted in 2010) from the party; and that helped then-upstart Ted Cruz win his Senate seat in the 2012 Texas Republican primary runoff over the establishment favorite, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

But now that Trump is the Republican lodestar, heresy isn’t measured in terms of conservatism, but fealty to him. And the term RINO may as well refer to Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., whose solid conservatism is out of step with today’s GOP.

Earlier his week, she was likely to be ousted from her position as the No. 3 Republican in House leadership for her unwillingness to toe the line on Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was marred by massive voter fraud, that Trump really won, and President Biden really lost. Weirdly, Cheney’s view — punctuated by her Washington Post commentary, calling on Republicans to choose “reverence for the rule of law” over blind loyalty to Trump — seems to have drawn more ire than her vote to impeach Trump in January. To wit: Schlichter’s Monday column was headlined, “The Big Lie Is That Cheney Is Still A Republican;” or Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who recently said that Cheney is “out of step with Republican voters.”

The backlash has nothing to do with her conservative bona fides. Cheney, whose dad is former vice president Dick Cheney, is her father’s daughter: a foreign policy hawk in the tradition of yesteryear’s GOP-ascendant neoconservatives. She’s a Reaganite three-legged stool conservative — social, economic, foreign policy — with a 100 percent National Right to Life rating, an 82 percent rating from Heritage Action for America, a 74 percent rating from the American Conservative Union Foundation and a 65 percent rating from the Club for Growth. If conservatism were the measure, you’d expect her to compare unfavorably with others in party congressional leadership, or the member challenging her for her position. But that’s not the case.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., is House Republicans’ No. 2 in leadership. He has the same rating as Cheney from National Right to Life and only beat her by 4 points in Heritage Action’s assessment. (In 2020, he bested her by 12 points in the American Conservative Union’s ratings, but by only 7 points in Club for Growth’s 2019 grading.) They both deviate from Trump-y policy instincts in important aspects: Both are to Trump’s right on economic policy; neither one of them has been caught, or would be caught, voicing support for anything like universal single-payer health care in a national TV interview. Cheney has strongly supported an ongoing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan; so has Scalise, at least before Trump’s term. Cheney, like Trump, is perceived by many LGBTQ+ Republicans as more friendly-to-neutral on LGBTQ+ issues relative to figures such as Scalise, who’s been a defender of same-sex marriage opponents and an opponent of marriage equality (unlike Cheney, who has stated her opposition but is seen as lukewarm in that position by social conservatives). In some ways, they’re both out of step with the GOP’s current dominant ideological strain. Yet only one is facing potential ouster; and this underlines that fundamentally, what is happening with Cheney mostly comes down to Trump.

Consider House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s, R-Calif., effort to boot Cheney and elevate Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., in her place. During Trump’s first impeachment, Stefanik emerged as a key ally of the president. This came as a surprise to many, because Stefanik was never before seen as a Trumper. An alumna of the George W. Bush White House, she — like Cheney — has a hawkish record on foreign policy. In 2019, she and Cheney were co-sponsors of the “Ensuring a Secure Afghanistan Act,” aimed at keeping U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan at or above 10,000, a bill and a position that directly contradicted Trump’s view.

Like Trump, Stefanik may be a more fiscally and socially moderate New York Republican (She also got a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life but only pulled a 56 percent rating from Heritage Action, 57 percent from the American Conservative Union and 40 percent from the Club for Growth. She voted for an amendment to end Trump’s ban on transgender Americans serving in the military, a socially moderate stance. Stefanik irks some backers of Trump’s immigration policy, including family separation; in a tweet last week, former Fox Business host Lou Dobbs referred to Stefanik as a RINO.

According to Politico, Stefanik voted with Trump 78 percent of the time, compared with Cheney’s 93 percent. Figures such as National Republican Congressional Committee chief, Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.) may argue that the internal power struggle is about policy, the notion that Trump’s “policies were extremely popular, and they brought in all kinds of new voters to the Republican Party,” and the importance of keeping House leadership more closely aligned with that agenda; maybe. But given their records, swapping in Stefanik for Cheney indicates that this is mostly about the cult of personality surrounding Trump.

It’s not an accident that Cheney name-checked Reagan in her commentary. “At the heart of our republic is a commitment to the peaceful transfer of power among political rivals in accordance with law,” she wrote. “President Ronald Reagan described this as our American ‘miracle.’” She seems to be banking on the GOP defaulting, at some point, to Reagan’s sunnier conservatism and to its natural opposition-party stance, critiquing Democratic policies on taxes and spending, and opposing Democrats’ supposedly soft approach to fighting terrorism. But if she loses her leadership position, it won’t only suggest that Republicans aren’t ready to shift back to tea party calls for fiscal discipline, or a more intervention-happy foreign policy. It may indicate a halfhearted commitment to fighting Democrats on policy in the here and now, vs. a robust interest in litigating November 2020 all the way into 2022 or 2024.

Perhaps it’s all leading to an inside-out redefinition of “RINO:” not a Republican who’s too liberal or even inadequately Trumpist on the issues. Rather, someone like Cheney, a Republican who’d rather call out the price tag of the Democrats’ agenda and defend unpopular wars, not peddle absurd allegations from bygone elections.

Liz Mair is the founder, owner and president of Mair Strategies LLC. She is a former online communications director for the Republican National Committee and a veteran of several presidential campaigns.

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