Liz Cheney is the Margaret Chase Smith of our time

Liz Cheney is the Margaret Chase Smith of our time
© Library of Congress

The latest skirmish in the war between former President Trump and Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyProsecutors say North Carolina woman deserves prison for bringing 14-year-old to Capitol riot Rules committee mulls contempt vote for Trump DOJ official McCarthy faces headaches from far-right House GOP MORE (R-Wyo.) began on Oct. 10 when Fox News host Chris Wallace asked Trump acolyte House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseHouse sets up Senate shutdown showdown GOP beginning to jockey for post-election leadership slots The Memo: Omicron poses huge threat to Biden presidency MORE (R-La.) whether President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE had legitimately won the 2020 election. Scalise was not about to fall into the trap of answering a direct yes or no question with either of the two expected choices. Rather, Scalise dodged, parried and then adroitly emitted a smokescreen of word salad to obscure any real answer. 

Cheney was rather more direct with the response she lobbed at Scalise via Twitter: “Millions of Americans have been sold a fraud that the election was stolen. Republicans have a duty to tell the American people that this is not true. Perpetuating the Big Lie is an attack on the core of our constitutional republic.”

It has been interesting to observe this battle, which essentially began when Cheney announced on Jan. 12 that she would vote to impeach Trump, saying, “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

Since then, the battle between Trump and Cheney has continued to escalate. Although Cheney initially had a modicum of support among Republican officeholders, that support has dissipated as Trump’s Big Lie of a stolen election has largely gained GOP orthodoxy. 

Cheney now finds herself on the ropes, not only with party functionaries, but also with a wide swath of her voters. It is not because she has abandoned any of her conservative beliefs and policy positions. She has held firm to those. The only thing that separates her from most other Republicans is her belief that Trump is poisonous to the American system of government.

It was initially difficult for me to shake the feeling that the Republican Party had been here before — a feeling famously described by baseball great Yogi Berra as “deja vu all over again.” That is, a situation where a GOP demagogue makes false claims of treasonous activity by government officials and tries to tear down the pillars of our democracy; where most other Republican officeholders, even though knowing he is dead wrong, are petrified from calling him out for fear of their own political fortunes; and where a fearless, truth-talking woman steps forward to counter and deflate the demagogue's destructive lies.

Then it occurred to me that former Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine) faced an almost identical situation about 70 years ago. On June 1, 1950, she electrified the nation by taking to the Senate floor and delivering a “Declaration of Conscience” that was obviously directed at that most famous of demagogues, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.). She memorably said, “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.” How better to describe the situation presently confronting Liz Cheney?

Sen. Smith issued her condemnation of McCarthyism before she had completed two years in the Senate, risking both her position and her personal safety. Although six other GOP senators joined her Declaration, she was the first to speak out and was the primary target of McCarthy’s retaliatory action. And retaliate he did, relentlessly vilifying her and even supporting a losing primary challenge against her in 1954.

McCarthy continued his reign of terror against government officials and others, making reckless and unfounded charges of disloyalty and communist affiliation for almost five more years after Smith’s Declaration. It all came to an end on Dec. 2, 1954, when male senators finally plucked up the courage to censure him. The GOP returned to being a more responsible political party and remained so for many years.

Smith came through her battle with McCarthy more popular than ever. Truth telling and decency paid off in spades for this courageous woman. But it is not clear whether Liz Cheney will be able to politically survive the Trump assault. Her standing with Wyoming voters is precarious. It is an unusual time in our nation’s history where falsehood is valued over truth.

Although many of Cheney’s policy views are abhorrent to this former Republican, political courage and steadfastly upholding American values are much more important than politics. Liz Cheney deserves the support and admiration of the people of this great country for standing up to a dangerous autocrat, fully aware of the risks to her political fortunes and personal safety.

I hope Cheney’s Republican colleagues will honor their oaths of office and come to this courageous woman's defense in less than the five years it took to defeat the previous demagogue. Does it always take a woman to lead the way into the light?

Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho attorney general (1983-1991) and twelve years on the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017).