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Goodbye to the Cheneys

The scion of a once formidable dynasty lost her primary yesterday, with less than 29 percent to her challenger’s 66.

Liz Cheney
Liz Cheney arrives with her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, to vote at the Teton County Library during the Republican primary election on Tuesday in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

He was a comedian, in case you forgot. Before he became a disgraced senator, Al Franken made jokes for a living. Maybe he’s preparing for a double comeback, political and satirical. Last week, the Democrat from Minnesota tweeted: “I’ve decided to endorse @RepLizCheney for the Republican nomination for the House seat In Wyoming it’s my first time endorsing in a GOP primary. But I think Al Franken’s support will carry a lot of weight with WY Republicans.” It’s worth a wry grin. 

Ol’ Al is in on the joke, but a lot of Democrats don’t seem to be. The earnest outpouring of support for Cheney’s losing reelection bid from liberals across the country this last week illustrates why she, and the Cheney family legacy, is headed out the door. The Republican Party has moved on, and voters are leaving stragglers behind. Of the ten GOP reps who joined the impeachment of Donald Trump, now four have lost their primaries, and four retired instead of running for reelection. Thanks to huge spending and well-timed support for a spoiler, outgoing Jaime Herrera Beutler was able to keep things close with Joe Kent in Washington’s Third Congressional District, but Cheney lost big. Cheney is a loser, by more than 36 percent

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Nationally, of course, this Wyoming election has been a feud about legacy. There is something almost paganly admirable about Cheney’s commitment to continuing her father’s work and upholding his good name. How Roman—an imperialist abusing republican virtue (something late-Roman, too, in a family sacrificing one daughter to the political ambitions of the eldest). The elections of Trump and America First candidates have been a repudiation of a particular idea of American strength and American international leadership; they are a condemnation of the George W. Bush presidency and of Dick Cheney. Liz Cheney is right about that, more right than the Laodiceans of American conservatism, who ape the manners of Mar-a-Lago but hold to the old foreign policy dispensation, wanting to have it both ways, hot and cold. 

As the scion of a nationally famous family, Cheney has been focused nationally, especially in the Muscovite January 6 congressional hearings (two can play this stupid game). And that is the other dynamic here. As Pavlos Papadopoulos, a professor at Wyoming Catholic College, argued in a profile for TAC yesterday, Cheney’s primary rival Harriet Hageman is that strangest bird of late in American federal politics, the genuine local elite. Papadopoulos proposes a Plutarchian comparison, writing, “Liz Cheney and Harriet Hageman, only a few years apart in age, exemplify two very different versions of American aristocracy. Both followed their fathers into politics, and their fathers’ political careers provided templates for their own.” Hageman’s father went from soldier to rancher to state legislator, with all the other rungs of the Wyoming cursus honorum in between. And his daughter? 

Papadopoulos writes: 

While Liz Cheney was working for the World Bank in Central Europe, Harriet Hageman was taking Nebraska to the Supreme Court over Wyoming’s water rights in the North Platte River watershed. While Cheney was at the State Department promoting economic investment in the Middle East and dreaming of regime change in Iran, Hageman was defeating Clinton-era rules in the U.S. Forest Service and Obama-era regulations of the livestock industry. Cheney’s career has been defined by the Pax Americana and the military undergirding it. Hageman’s political identity is Sagebrush Rebellion, through and through.

Read the whole thing. I hope Papadopoulos is right, and that sending Cheney packing is as much a victory for federalism—and an old idea of what faction in our extended republic was supposed to be about before parties, namely regionalism—as it is a win for MAGA and America First. But I suspect there’s no new trend to be extrapolated here. Hageman may, locally, represent the triumph of the local over the national, but, nationally, Cheney’s defeat is much more about a general dissatisfaction with the establishment. Cheney has, more loudly than anyone in the GOP, tied herself to the status quo, and to a Never Trump rejection of the majority of her own party and an enormous portion of her country—kulaks who stand already condemned. 

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There is one striking aspect of this meeting of the local and the national worth highlighting found in truly party politics. As much as you might complain about it, the two-party system is here to stay for the foreseeable future, baked in by our election rules. Arizona Republican national committeeman Tyler Bowyer suggested on Twitter yesterday that part of why Cheney has lost so badly (more than 36 points, remember) is because Frank Eathorne, Corey Steinmetz, and Nina Webber of the Wyoming RNC delegation invoked a party “Rule 11”; this prevented certain national GOP funds from intervening in the state’s primary. The rule reads in part

The Republican National Committee shall not, without the prior written and filed approval of all members of the Republican National Committee from the state involved, contribute money or in-kind aid to any candidate for any public or party office of that state, except the nominee of the Republican Party or a candidate who is unopposed in the Republican primary after the filing deadline for that office.

It turns out that the Wyoming GOP wanted the Wyoming GOP to pick its representatives, not national apparatchiks or the audience of CNN. 

So, goodbye to the Cheneys. 

Liz is not as interesting as Dick. Her father followed a dramatic enough arc to the halls of power that the same people who clamored for her reelection cast him first as a comic book villain, and then with the strange new respect for the Bushes liberals found in the Trump years, an anti-hero worthy of his own blockbuster in Vice (2018). Perhaps Hollywood treatment is appropriate; a lot of people died and many lives were ruined in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror. An America Last foreign policy has hollowed out the middle class. Cheney the Younger has tried her best to be a television star, to be a superhero leader of respectable conservatism against the dastardly Donald, but she lacks the star power of her father. Now—to change dramatic media—Wyoming has taken away the national spotlight, sending her to exit stage left. By more than 36 points.

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