Of martyrs and manipulators: Liz Cheney’s pointless spectacle
In American political life there is always a certain group of people who love the idea of martyrdom — not actual physical death (that might hurt), but electoral death: the “I’d rather be right than win” crowd. Rarely do these wannabe martyrs achieve real martyrdom, i.e., become heroes around whose memory millions rally. Instead, they mostly are forgotten, losers.
Which brings us to Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.).
In years past, the third-ranking member of minority party leadership would be a barely noticed presence at the periphery of national politics. But, in a time where Donald Trump is the litmus test for everything, any Republican who will publicly criticize Trump is an instant folk-hero — even pro-life, anti-tax, anti-regulation, pro-interventionist politicians. If you hate Trump, anything is possible.
Cheney’s martyrdom was well-planned. She purposefully agitated her colleagues. There are no reports she actually worked the GOP caucus, canvassing and counting heads. Cheney didn’t fight back, she planned to lose.
The reality is that Liz Cheney should not be in Republican leadership — and not because only Trump acolytes belong. The neocon politics of Cheney (and her father) is not just in eclipse, it’s practically dead. There is hardly any constituency in Republican politics for it.
The truly principled move for Cheney would have been to resign from leadership and not put her colleagues through the public relations meat grinder. After all, being in leadership means you have to at least generally represent the rest of the caucus. Cheney can still serve the voters of Wyoming as a rank-and-file member, retain her seniority and serve as a ranking member of committees (and be in line for a chairmanship if partisan control flips in 2022). She can even complain about Trump anytime and anywhere she wants.
But staging her own ersatz crucifixion opened the door to her own martyrdom and the avalanche of fawning publicity she craves. Too bad her time in the sun probably won’t last nor have much — if any — effect on Trump.
If Cheney really wanted to get at Trump, she would take a page from the shrewdest operator in Washington: Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
It is a pretty good bet that McConnell detests Trump — and Trump definitely hates McConnell. Yet, McConnell’s position as GOP leader in the Senate is as secure as ever. McConnell is handling Trump by ignoring him — and plotting his own political and policy plans. McConnell uses the Trump name when he sees fit and ignores him when he can. McConnell is playing the long game as best he can. He sees the polling — Trump is popular in the GOP, but Republican voters do not necessarily want him as the 2024 standard-bearer.
Cheney could have done the same thing. She could have worked within the caucus to move her fellow members beyond personality and toward winning issues. Given his utter lack of discipline, suffocating attention-deficit-disorder and view that loyalty is a one-way street, purely relying on Trump personally is just about the worst strategy in politics. If Cheney was willing to address the populist concerns that dominate both the Republican and Democratic Parties, she could have maintained her leadership position.
And she could do the worst thing that anyone could do to Trump: beat him.
If Cheney could win her Wyoming GOP primary in spite of criticizing Trump, it would do far more damage to Trump than her melodramatic exit from leadership. To win, Cheney would have to do the McConnell pivot — talk about the issues that matter to the people of Wyoming.
An issue pivot would only be the first step. The second step would be to engage in the kind of intense retail politics that works best in rural states like Wyoming. Like the Dakotas, Alaska, Montana and other small states, the voters know that their protection from the power of large states comes from their federal representatives and seniority. The ability to protect Wyoming and deliver federal dollars drives many voters when it comes to federal elections.
Practically since the founding of the Republic, rural and small-town America has felt put upon by the power centers of the country. Hating New York is a 200-year-old political tradition. Simply showing up and ensuring that your small-town constituents feel that you are one of them goes a long way. Cheney could win against a pro-Trump challenger just based on shoe leather and seniority.
But for Cheney, the approval of the chattering classes appears to be more alluring that gladhanding Rotarians in Riverton.
It appears that Cheney has chosen her path forward and somehow thinks she is going to lead a crusade against Trump. It is far more likely that the liberal media that adores her at the moment will forget about her in short order. Maybe she gets a sinecure as a token Republican on CNN. But, by the time 2024 rolls around, she will be largely forgotten and powerless.
Cheney should enjoy her moment in the sun; odds are, it will be much briefer than she thinks.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.
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