Down in Flames
How Liz Cheney wrecked her once-promising political career
“Damn your principles! Stick to your party.” That was Disraeli’s advice to an over-scrupulous political colleague, and it could well serve as an epitaph for the wreckage of Representative Liz Cheney’s political career.
In Wyoming’s August 16 Republican primary, Cheney lost to her opponent by a crushing 37-point margin. No surprise there: She voted to impeach President Donald Trump after the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot and then agreed to serve on Nancy Pelosi’s rigged investigatory committee. This did not play well in a solidly Republican state that went for Trump by wide margins in 2016 and 2020. Cheney must surely have known that so open an anti-Trump posture would blow up her career, but she decided that the former president’s behavior after the election of 2020 was too heinous to overlook. It was a decision that first cost her her leadership position in the House Republican caucus and ultimately her seat in the House of Representatives.
Let it be stipulated that on the merits of the case Cheney is quite right in her condemnation of Trump. His actions were heinous, they did show him to be unfit for the presidency, an accounting for the January 6 outrage is urgently needed. That she so courageously held that ground in the face of fierce criticism was a notable act of civic courage.
But did it have to end this way? A politician with civic courage may appear admirable. But if such courage is not tempered by political calculation it can be futile and even self-destructive. This, I believe is the story of Liz Cheney’s decline and fall: Little by little, her righteous stand devolved into self-righteousness, which blinded her to its counterproductive, perhaps even destructive, potential.
Regarding the psychodrama that Donald Trump has inflicted on America, one very salient fact seldom receives the emphasis it deserves. In 2020 over 74 million Americans voted to reelect him as President of the United States. The related fact that even more Americans voted for Joe Biden doesn’t cancel out those 74 million people. Many of them are fervent Trump supporters who nod along when the former president says that the 2020 election was rigged. Many more discern a double standard in operation, as in the case of the FBI’s raid on Mar-a-Lago: Hillary Clinton mishandled classified information and was allowed to skate; Trump is being hounded for—allegedly—doing the same thing.
So if Trump is to be called to account for his misdeeds, it’s imperative that the process be seen to be fair and impartial—but the media, congressional Democrats and now the Biden Justice Department have contrived to make it appear quite the opposite.
Take the 2021 impeachment. There was one offense connected with the events of January 6 that was clear, simple and, indeed, irrefutable: dereliction of duty. While the Capitol riot was going on, Trump did nothing. He made no plea for his supporters to cease and desist; he failed to send federal law enforcement and military personnel to disperse the rioters. He sat in the White House, watching events unfold on TV, and in the end it was Vice President Mike Pence who (despite having no constitutional authority to do so) called in the National Guard. Here was a charge that even the most fervent Trump supporter would have been hard pressed to deny.
But instead of focusing on this issue, the House Democrats botched together a bill of impeachment accusing Trump of “incitement of insurrection”—a dubious accusation given the fact that it was not and still has not been levelled against one single Capitol rioter. And it was accompanied by a demand from Nancy Pelosi to Vice President Pence that he invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment against Trump: Unless he did so and assumed the role of acting president, the House would proceed with Trump’s impeachment. Along with the shoddiness of the bill of impeachment, this high-handed action all but assured that Trump would be acquitted in the subsequent Senate trial. But Liz Cheney went along with Pelosi & Co.—her first mistake.
And that mistake was only compounded by her participation in the select House committee that was formed to investigate the events of January 6. That such a committee was proper and necessary was obvious, but Speaker Pelosi insured that its credibility would be suspect in the eyes of millions of Americans. She refused to accept the Republican committee members nominated by the House Minority Leader, scotching any possibility that the committee’s work would be seen as a bipartisan search for the facts. And once again Liz Cheney went along with Pelosi—her second and assuredly fatal mistake.
Cheney’s anti-Trump credentials have never been in doubt; she had no need to burnish them by signing on with the Democrats. She could have declined to serve on the January 6 committee on some such grounds as these: I have condemned Donald Trump’s actions subsequent to the 2020 election and particularly on January 6, 2021. I believe that the events of that day must certainly be investigated to establish the former president’s culpability and potential criminal liability. Such an investigation by the House must, however, must be conducted in a fair, impartial and bipartisan manner. Only thus would its conclusions be broadly acceptable to the American people. But the committee as constituted has the appearance of a partisan political procedure. It was a grave mistake for Speaker Pelosi to veto the Minority Leader’s nominees for the committee. Therefore, I myself must decline to participate.
This course of action—principle combined with pragmatism—was available to Liz Cheney but instead she threw in her lot with the House Democratic majority. Cheney became a member of the prosecutorial team in a proceeding without a defense team. It’s true that the committee’s investigation has turned up a good deal of information that presents Donald Trump in an unflattering, even reprehensible, light. But in its one-sidedness the committee ended up preaching to the choir, and its proceedings have only exacerbated bitter partisan passions on both sides. In some ways they’ve even benefitted the former president. Plausibly to his supporters, Trump can say that the House January 6 committee is just the so-called Swamp’s latest attempt to destroy him: first Russiagate, now this.
Given her stance on Trump, it seems probable that Cheney would have lost her House seat even if she’d tempered her opposition to him as suggested above. But she might have been able thread the needle, preserving the possibility of a political comeback in the post-Trump era. But as it is Cheney has said too much, has gone so far as to intimate that the former president’s supporters are not merely wrong but wicked, has too closely identified herself with the Democratic/progressive opposition to Trump. An adamantine self-righteousness led her down that path, with the result that Liz Cheney is done in the Republican Party. As for the Democrats, they’ll toss her overboard now that her usefulness to them has come to an end.
The talk now is of a Cheney presidential run, either as a 2024 Republican spoiler or an independent candidate. This is wishful thinking, verging on nonsense: The GOP certainly won’t have her and most Democrats would never dream of voting for her. In short, Liz Cheney is a politician without a party. And while my sympathy for her crackup is genuine, it’s tempered by the fact that after all, she did it to herself.
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