When Utah Republicans booed Mitt Romney off the stage at their party convention on Saturday, the Massachusetts governor-turned-Utah senator responded, “Oh yeah, you can boo all you like, but I’ve been a Republican all my life.” It was a bold claim from a man who famously has not voted for a Republican presidential nominee since he himself was on the ballot. But Romney’s defection from the GOP goes back even further than that.
In 1994, during his ill-fated run for Senate against Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts, Romney boasted of his liberal bona fides. “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country,” Romney averred at one debate. “I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush! I’m not trying to return to Reagan-Bush!” he insisted at another. So he was, and indeed he did not. During the 1992 presidential primaries, Romney voted for Democrat senator Paul Tsongas. He joined the Republican Party in 1993 and was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002 on a “progressive” platform, a promise he proved in 2006 when he enacted “Romneycare,” the healthcare reform that laid the groundwork for “Obamacare” three years later.
Romney hails from the Republican Party’s liberal wing, which his father George represented as governor of Michigan and as a presidential candidate in 1964 and 1968. When the liberal wing dominated and offered him opportunities for advancement, Romney happily supported the party; when more conservative and “populist” elements took control in 2016, Romney largely withdrew his support.
Liz Cheney, the embattled leader of the House Republican Conference, has followed a similar political trajectory. Cheney represents the neoconservative faction of the GOP — liberal imperialists more interested in projecting American influence abroad than waging cultural battles at home. Like Romney and many other leading squishes, Cheney owes her political career to her father, during whose vice presidency she worked in the State Department on Near East affairs. When the neocons dominated the party, Cheney lent it her full support. When more traditionally conservative elements regained influence, Cheney largely withdrew her support, voting for the farcical second impeachment of President Trump and, just this week, parroting Democrat talking points.
“The 2020 presidential election was not stolen,” Cheney tweeted on Monday. “Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.” For months, Democrats have condemned concerns over the integrity of that election as “the big lie,” a phrase coined by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf. (Ironically, the phrase initially referred to the alleged strategy of German Jews to blame the pro-Nazi general Erich Ludendorff for Germany’s loss in the First World War—an historical circumstance that casts Democrats as the Nazis in their own analogy—but I digress.)
Reasonable people may disagree over the “irregularities” in the 2020 election: the changes to voting rules, the expansion of ballot “drop boxes,” and the constitutionality of mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania. But Liz Cheney refuses to abide such disagreement. The moment her party faction lost influence, Cheney turned on the party, even from a position of leadership.
David French, the sometime conservative columnist, took umbrage at the campaign to remove Cheney from Republican leadership. “If the House GOP ultimately takes stronger action against Liz Cheney than it did against Marjorie Taylor Greene,” he tweeted, “then one has to wonder if it’s time to make tough choices about the continued unity of the party.” What choices? What unity? David’s threat to withdraw his support from the GOP might carry more weight had he not already left the party in 2018.
The “fusionist” arrangement of the Cold War conservative movement brought together free marketeers, foreign policy hawks, and traditionalists to defeat the Soviet Union abroad and its useful idiots at home. The fusionists promised a “three-legged stool,” but the respective legs never stood on equal ground. The traditional conservatives supported the free market fundamentalist faction even when its economic schemes threatened to disrupt cultural stability. They supported the hawks in their oft-misbegotten crusades despite an aversion to overseas adventurism. But the moment traditional conservatives regained influence within the party, their fellows from the other factions headed for the hills when they weren’t attacking them outright.
Politics is the art of inclusion. But calls for a “big tent party” ring hollow when they come from fair-weather friends who abandon their co-partisans the moment political winds stop blowing in their favor. One cannot count as a teammate the sore loser who takes his ball and goes home. If the squishes will not stand by the conservatives, they have no business in party leadership. Indeed, the have no place in the party at all.