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Point/Counterpoint: Whatever Liz Cheney decides, her defense of democracy needs a political strategy

From the column: "She lost in the primary last week as one of the only Republicans in Washington opposing the last Republican president."

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Joe Heller
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Two years ago, Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney was on her way to being a future speaker of the House. She was the third-ranking House Republican with a totally safe seat. She lost that position in the House Republican conference — and now has lost her seat entirely. All because she decided to stand with the Constitution and the republic and against the alleged crimes of a Republican president.

An underappreciated factor in Cheney's rise and fall was that she was always a national politician who snagged a Wyoming seat. She was born in Wisconsin, went to high school near Washington, D.C., and went to college in Colorado before starting a Washington-based career in government and Republican politics. Indeed, her first attempt at winning office in Wyoming — a short-lived 2014 primary challenge to Republican Senator Mike Enzi — struggled with accusations of carpetbagging. In 2016, she was able to overcome that to win the vacant House seat, but her focus has always been on national, not local, policy questions. She never built the kinds of deep connections that many members of the House have within their own districts.

Even her father, who certainly was from Wyoming, didn't really spend much time in the state after college, especially after representing the state in the House from 1979 to 1989. He, too, entered politics as a national, not a local, politician. There's nothing wrong with that at all; the same has been true of many congressional leaders. But the weaker the district ties, the more vulnerable the representative presumably is to shake-ups. She won her elections as a strong Republican partisan; she lost in the primary last week as one of the only Republicans in Washington opposing the last Republican president.

From the column: "Any effort to draw conclusions from the current political landscape about what might happen in 2024 is almost certainly premature."

She campaigned as a national candidate against Trump, not as a local politician at all; her final two-minute ad was explicitly addressed as much to a national as to a state audience. This was not a candidate running as a "trustee" — a representative asking the electorate to trust her to make decisions on their behalf. It wasn't even a candidate running against her opponents, who she barely mentioned as irresponsible opponents of democracy. Instead, Cheney was basically asking Republicans to use their vote to oppose a former president who wasn't even on the ballot. That's going to be a hard sell, even if Republican voters had serious doubts about Trump.

Whether she was seriously attempting re-election or not, Cheney's defense of democracy and the rule of law has been superb, as have been her contributions to the Jan. 6 select committee.

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She now pledges to continue her fight against Trump, perhaps with a presidential candidacy. It's hard to see how contesting Republican primaries would achieve her goals, however, if Trump does run in 2024. An explicit anti-Trump candidate would appear to have no chance at all to be nominated. If anything, such a campaign would be likely to split the anti-Trump vote and help him win.

A third-party anti-Trump candidate in the general election might be more successful. In 2000, Ralph Nader concentrated his third-party campaign on contested states; and in those states he worked to secure the votes of those who would otherwise have backed the Democratic nominee, Al Gore. But even if Cheney was willing to campaign in order to elect a Democrat over Trump, it would still be a tricky proposition, since she might wind up winning votes that otherwise would have gone to the Democratic candidate. A true Nader-like anti-Trump candidate would more likely ignore Trump's offenses and campaign purely on extreme conservative policy preferences, hoping to peel away some Republicans who might be tempted at the thought of voting for a true Conservative.

Oddly enough, Cheney's father was on his way to being speaker of the House when his own career path was altered back in 1989; Dick Cheney was the second-ranked House Republican behind a soon-to-retire party leader, but he became President George H.W. Bush's replacement secretary of defense when Bush's first choice was defeated in the Senate. What's more, Dick Cheney's biggest accomplishment during his House career also involved serving on a select committee, in his case the one investigating the Iran-Contra affair — and his role was to limit the political damage of the investigation, not to help make it effective.

It certainly doesn't appear likely at this point that Liz Cheney will wind up a Cabinet secretary, let alone vice president or president. But as hard as it is to see a next step that helps her fix the Republican Party and revive its commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law, she may actually wind up as having the more important political career anyway.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy and a former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.

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Jonathan Bernstein

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