Politico

Opinion | How Democrats Learned to Love the Cheneys


Like Republicans Mitt Romney and John Bolton before her, Representative Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has discovered the secret of how to transition from being a whipping boy of the Washington press corps to its paragon of rectitude: Simply side with Democrats and against the Republican majority on some issue of substance.

This metamorphosis—lampooned as “strange new respect” by journalist Tom Bethell in 1992 as the liberal journalist’s instinct to overpraise any leftward gesture by a right-wing politician—can be accomplished any number of ways. In Romney’s case, he achieved his strange new respect in 2020, when he cast his ballot to impeach President Donald Trump. John Bolton won his by publishing a show-and-tell about working for the Trump administration, 2020’s The Room Where It Happened. Almost overnight, Romney went from the slick-haired Bain Capital villain who delighted in dismantling viable American businesses at an enormous profit to him and shipping the jobs overseas to a principled gentleman—as far as most reporters were concerned. Bolton, cast as a warmonger by the liberal establishment’s in-flight magazine, the New Yorker, when he joined the Trump White House in 2018, got a makeover as a true son of liberty for ratting Trump out.

The rise of Cheney’s stock has been no less dramatic. Bred from two pedigreed Republicans, Dick Cheney (White House chief of staff; House minority whip; secretary of defense; vice president) and Lynne Cheney (chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities; right-wing think tank fellow; high-profile scold of video games), Liz Cheney was no pressman’s idea of a luminary. She flew with the hawks, was short-listed as a future speaker of the House or a Senate seat, and fought her way through the ranks to become the third-ranking House Republican. “Staunch” was one of her two middle-names when the press profiled her. The other was “conservative.” The Spectator‘s Jack Hunter treated her fairly in a link-happy piece that listed off her, shall we say, extremely neoconservative positions on war, torture, drone strikes, black sites, the PATRIOT Act, Gitmo and mass surveillance.

But those positions are canceled in the liberal mind by her dissents from Trumpian orthodoxy. She defended Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, criticized Trump’s Middle East policies, and came out as pro-mask. But what made her a giant for many reporters and commentators was her adoption of the Democrats’ position on Trump’s impeachment. She voted to impeach in February and has repeatedly slammed him for the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. Recently, she spawned new accolades by fist-bumping Biden at his recent address to Congress and ripping Trump’s “stolen election“ lie.

Just listen to the ridiculous lionizing. “Liz Cheney’s Profile in Courage” said the headline of an April 28 Charlie Sykes piece in the Bulwark. “She Kind of Reminds You of Margaret Thatcher,” one Republican member of Congress told POLITICO’s Alex Thompson late last year. “How Liz Cheney Became the Conscience of Republicans,” CNN’s Chris Cillizza wrote in mid-January. “Did Liz Cheney Risk Everything to Impeach Trump?” Cillizza asked later that month. “Liz Cheney Praised for Impeachment ‘Courage’ but Risks Pro-Trump Ire,” the Financial Times, late January. “Liz Cheney Speaks Out After Failed GOP Effort to Oust Her from Leadership for Impeachment Vote,” People, February. “Liz Cheney is a hero for standing up for the truth,” insisted Representative Jamie Raskin, D-Md., during impeachment proceedings. And so on.

Such is the disdain for Trump that he boosts the Cheney worship among the public and the press every time he denounces her. In his Jan. 6 fire-starter speech, he said, “We got to get rid of the weak congresspeople, the ones that aren’t any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world. We got to get rid of them. We got to get rid.” Cheney’s brand of courage, it seems, pays indirectly into the fundraising piggy bank. Last week, Trump gave her another boost. “Liz Cheney is polling sooo low in Wyoming, and has sooo little support, even from the Wyoming Republican Party, that she is looking for a way out of her congressional race,” he said. Now that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has now adopted the Trumpian line on Cheney, prepare yourself for more “profile in courage” plaudits for her.

The current fuss over Cheney tells us less about her political “growth” or “change” or “courage” than it does about the press corps’ need for a changing story and the need for politicians to differentiate themselves. Political ambition can be consummated in a number of ways. One can support the leadership and wait to be called on, which is a pretty dull story. Or one can oppose the bosses and attempt to topple them, a story that writes itself and attracts readers.

Cheney, who has more in common politically with the Republicans who have been knocking her than she does with the people who have been praising her, obviously decided to do a little bit of both—rise inside the Republican establishment while also working to distinguish herself from Trump. The impeachment saga presented her with not so much a test of courage but a fork in her career. Go down with Trump or ride his political corpse to glory? Some time ago she decided to saddle the old bull. While Trump might be bucking more than Cheney anticipated, the wild ride is burnishing her image the way John McCain’s defiance of Trump did his. The field is overstocked with Trump clones—Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Ron Desantis, Kristi Noem, Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley, Tom Cotton, et al. Having studied politics for decades under her mother and father, Cheney has surely gamed this out. You can call her courageous all you want and express your astonishment at her opposition to Trump. But there is more calculation on display here than there is valor.

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How far are we from a Cheney for President exploratory committee? Send predictions to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts wants to ghost-write Cheney’s Profiles in Courage knockoff. My Twitter account wants Wyoming to return to territory status. My RSS feed has strange new disrespect for Cheney.

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