Angling for the Senate: Keep America Safe From Liz Cheney

The former vice president's daughter has discredited herself on numerous occasions.
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The GOP is abuzz about Liz Cheney's decision to mount a 2014 primary challenge against incumbent Republican Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming. In an item titled "Old Boy Net United Against Liz Cheney," Jonathan Tobin describes the daughter of old boy Dick Cheney as "widely acknowledged to be among the party's brightest stars," a dubious characterization. He goes on:

Why are so many leading Republicans lining up against Cheney? They are saying that they are opposing her bid because they don't like divisive Republican primaries that weaken the party and the eventual winner against the Democrats. But this is bunk. Wyoming is so deep red it's almost impossible to imagine the scenario in which a GOP primary, no matter how nasty, would lead to a Democratic win. Rather, what they really seem to be mad about is a breach of manners. If Enzi were to disappear from the Senate, few in Washington would even notice, let alone miss him, while Cheney would be a strong asset for a party that needs talented members able to stand up to President Obama and the Democrats as well as strengthening the party's appeal to women. But many in the establishment are so offended by her not waiting her turn until Enzi left on his own steam that they are prepared to stand by him.

Even more interestingly, Senator Rand Paul, who is usually to be found among those least likely to join the go-along-to-get-along crowd, is also backing Enzi, which may have more to do with his disagreement with Cheney's sensible views on foreign policy than any affection for the incumbent.

One aspect of that analysis is accurate: Liz Cheney's foreign-policy views, which would only be considered "sensible" at a magazine that still regards the Iraq War as a prudent undertaking, explain a great deal of the opposition to her. Most Americans understand that investing trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives in Iraq was a historic blunder. Tea Party types don't want to defend the conflict, but neither are they comfortable fully confronting the truth about Team Bush's folly or the toll it has taken on the GOP's reputation for competence in foreign policy.

Enzi supported the Iraq War too, and it may be irrational that his challenger is more tied, in the public mind, to the invasion. But being the offspring of a vice president has consequences. On one hand, you enjoy a base of donors and a degree of name recognition far beyond what individual merit would've brought. On the other hand, you're tied to the family brand. Republicans aren't thrilled about this primary challenge in part because of the nature of the Cheney brand: It is understandably associated in the minds of many Americans with misleading the nation into a disastrous war, an official program of illegal torture, a proclivity for Machiavellian power grabs, and a relationship with Halliburton that seemed like cronyism. There is, as well, the public's distaste for political dynasties, due to the reasonable suspicion that the younger members wouldn't be where they are without inside-the-Beltway nepotism, and the carpetbagger vibe of her brief residence in the state prior to declaring her run.

It is fair to judge Liz Cheney based on the family brand? Personally, I try not to hold the illegal, immoral acts of a father against his son or daughter unless he or she implicates herself in the objectionable positions.

Liz Cheney hasn't just embraced the objectionable actions and positions of neoconservative Republicans. She has also earned an independent reputation as someone who participates in weak, laughable, and even scurrilous attacks on ideological opponents that can only cast doubt on her judgment and moral character. The weak, laughable attacks are often aimed at Obama, of whom I am often critical. But even people who hold Obama in low esteem can't help but feel embarrassed on behalf of commentators who discredit themselves by making absurd claims like, "He's unwilling to go after the terrorists that are threatening the nation." To deny Obama's willingness to go after terrorists is to be deeply ignorant, ideologically blinkered, or a liar. None of those qualities is desirable in an aspiring U.S. senator.

On another occasion, Cheney said of Obama, "He's working to preemptively disarm America while rogue states like North Korea and Iran build nuclear weapons capabilities and stockpiles." Under Obama, the U.S. spends orders of magnitude more on defense than any other country; it maintains a nuclear stockpile large enough to obliterate whole continents if not the earth itself; and it has invested billions in a fleet of armed drones that increases our weapons capabilities. Obama's policy is, in other words, keeping us armed to the teeth. I understand that convention holds that it's unfair to begrudge pundits when they go on Fox News and utter inane talking points so far beyond exaggeration that they're just lies, but this is especially inane. 

Cheney's low regard for civil liberties bothers me most. Others on the right are most bothered by her work for Keep America Safe. As the New York Times reported in a 2010 article about its efforts:

A conservative advocacy organization in Washington, Keep America Safe, kicked up a storm last week when it released a video that questioned the loyalty of Justice Department lawyers who worked in the past on behalf of detained terrorism suspects.

But beyond the expected liberal outrage, the tactics of the group, which is run by Liz Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president, have also split the tightly knit world of conservative legal scholars. Many conservatives, including members of the Federalist Society, the quarter-century-old policy group devoted to conservative and libertarian legal ideals, have vehemently criticized Ms. Cheney's video, and say it violates the American legal principle that even unpopular defendants deserve a lawyer.

"There's something truly bizarre about this," said Richard A. Epstein, a University of Chicago law professor and a revered figure among many members of the society. "Liz Cheney is a former student of mine -- I don't know what moves her on this thing," he said.

On Sunday, Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, issued a joint letter criticizing the "shameful series of attacks" on government lawyers, which it said were "unjust to the individuals in question and destructive of any attempt to build lasting mechanisms for counterterrorism adjudications." The letter was signed by a Who's Who of former Republican administration officials and conservative legal figures, including Kenneth W. Starr, the former special prosecutor, and Charles D. Stimson, who resigned from the second Bush administration after suggesting that businesses might think twice before hiring law firms that had represented detainees. Other Bush administration figures who signed include Peter D. Keisler, a former acting attorney general, and Larry D. Thompson, a former deputy attorney general.

The letter cited "the American tradition of zealous representation of unpopular clients," including the defense by John Adams of British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre, and noted that some detainee advocates, who worked pro bono, have made arguments that swayed the Supreme Court. Ms. Cheney's video referred to the lawyers as the "Al Qaeda Seven," and accused the Justice Department of concealing their names, which were later revealed by Fox News.

Tobin might have been less puzzled by the opposition to Cheney's candidacy if he'd recalled how many people lost respect for her enough to publicly declare her approach to advocacy "shameful." 

In Tobin's defense, there are probably some Republican operatives who are upset that she didn't "wait her turn." Politicos are often overly invested in dues paying, obsess over perceived slights, fetishize tribal loyalty, and exhibit entitlement on a scale that used to be considered sinful. The Republicans who oppose Cheney for those reasons should get over themselves. They should oppose her based on the dearth of what she has to offer, and the many discrediting statements, actions, and policy stances that call her values, character, and judgment into question. This is someone who has a history of mistaken foreign-policy judgments, an inability to make sophisticated critiques of ideological opponents, and a bad habit of behaving dishonorably toward rivals. She should never be trusted to hold elected office in America.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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