President Biden — Hear Me Out — Should Support Liz Cheney
Any sentence or phrase about Representative Liz Cheney’s political career should start with a disclaimer: She’s probably not going to be in Congress next January.
Since former president Donald Trump sparked a riot on the steps of the US Capitol, Cheney has been the loudest and most persistent Republican in Congress at holding his feet to the fire, even vice-chairing the House’s committee investigating the riot and Trump’s slander of the 2020 election. For her trouble, the House GOP has booted her from every other committee in the chamber and moved in a closed-door voice vote to eject her from her perch as the third-ranking Republican in Congress. Cheney was one of the House’s most conservative members before the riot, and she still is. But now, her voice and her presence are constant reminders that no amount of power is worth the price of democracy. Her colleagues, frankly, can’t have that.
Now, Liz Cheney has to run for re-election in Wyoming’s open Republican primary, and her run comes with a catch: The former president, the House Republican leader, and well over a hundred Republican congresspersons have all backed her primary opponent, Harriet Hageman. (Cheney, in her corner, has her riot-reckoning sidekick, Adam Kinzinger, former president George W. Bush, three senators, a governor, and a few retired politicos from the pre-riot era.) With all that firepower against her — and Trump himself coming to Wyoming, in the flesh, to assail her before crowds of thousands — Cheney’s losing her primary by nearly 30 percentage points, according to a recent poll from the conservative Club for Growth.
Will it be a shame on the current congressional GOP if the scion of Dick Cheney’s political dynasty isn’t among them come 2023? Sure. But they aren’t the only ones who should take the blame if they don’t intervene in the congresswoman’s lonely campaign. There’s Former Vice President Pence, who learned to stop worrying and love the feud with his ex-boss in Georgia after he accurately tallied the 2020 election’s votes as vice president. There’s Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who gloriously summed up the modern GOP as “dedicated to the weird worship of one dude.” There are others, like Chris Christie, Mitt Romney and even the Senate’s majority leader, Mitch McConnell. They’ve all vocalized an itch to move the party out of the darkness of the Trump era, but they haven’t seemed to acknowledge that moving forward from those years means fighting the man who defined them.
And there’s the President of the United States, Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.
Every politician I’ve mentioned by name to this point has been a Republican, save for Biden, and Cheney hasn’t supported very many of the current president’s policies. In fact, she blasted him for putting the nation in “a catastrophic situation” during the American military’s mad dash out of Afghanistan last fall and accused him of abandoning his commitment to bipartisanship during his first months in office. Besides a two-second fist bump before President Biden’s first speech to Congress (and Cheney’s aforementioned problems with her current party), nothing has made the two look like an obvious political alliance before. But that’s exactly the point.
Biden — and the Democrats — claim to be serious about democracy, and I’m old enough to remember when Biden claimed to be serious about bipartisanship. He’s struggled to shore up the former in Congress, of course, in part because the latter looks like something of a pipe dream. But not this time. If Biden swallows the disagreements of the past and sides with Cheney in her struggle against authoritarianism, the message would be clear as a bell: When the moment stands tall and the situation is within his power, the president really is serious about democracy and bipartisanship.
According to Wyoming state law, you don’t have to be a Republican to vote in the state’s Republican primary. Democrats and independents alike can request GOP ballots, right up to the day of the primary vote. The powers that be in Mar-A-Lago tried to get that law changed, to kick independents and the state’s few Democrats out of the conservative primary process. MAGA land seems to know what Biden & Co. have yet to publicly acknowledge: A win for Cheney, all other factors notwithstanding, would be a gigantic blow to the creeping tide of fascism that erodes the nation’s civic sands with each passing crisis.
In February 2021, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson wrote, “It’s in everyone’s interest that the GOP become an actual political party again, rather than a cult…” For Biden, the Democrats, and a not-particularly-progressive independent such as myself, the truth of Robinson’s premise should be obvious. It should also be obvious to Pence, Sasse, and Christie. The Democrats aren’t going to beat the Republican nominee for Wyoming’s House seat, and the GOP’s preferred pick isn’t going to do the right thing during the next election controversy. All of them know all this; they also know that, for them, doing the right thing means backing Cheney.
Biden can swallow whatever pride he has left and put country before party, like he and his allies are constantly asking of Republicans. If he does, he’ll have proven the strength and transcendence of his convictions to a nation with reason to doubt them. If Liz Cheney goes down to defeat at the end of the summer without so much as a word from the current occupant of the White House, whatever happens next to the Republican Party — and the country — is going to be on President Biden, as much as it’s already on every Trumpist figure in the country.
Don’t take this to mean Cheney is alone: She’s raised around $7 million in the fight of her political life, and her battle for the state of Wyoming will draw vocal support from concerned citizens across the country. Besides, who knows? Maybe Pence, Christie, and the rest of the Party of Lincoln’s Future Crew will try to remix their rout of Trump in Georgia by camping out in Cheney’s backyard this summer, raising their voices and rising to the occasion as the next Republican Judgement Day gets closer and closer.
But it won’t just be a judgement of the GOP. Cheney’s fate, and the list of those who stepped in and tried to change it, will be a judgement of all who have claimed the mantle of democracy since the curtain fell on the 2020 campaign. Was their dedication real, based on a deep concern for the country, or was it just a cudgel to score cheap political points? (As a Black voter myself, I’m thinking of a very specific line of attack that Biden deployed against Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, after Kemp moved to make it tougher — unnecessarily, deliberately tougher — to vote in the state in 2021. The governor knows how to rile up the White House, no matter who’s in power.)
You might say that Biden can’t endorse Cheney, as a Democratic president. It could look, to voters in Wyoming, that Cheney was abandoning Republicans altogether in search of Democratic approval. You’re probably right. But Biden doesn’t have to fly to Wyoming, or order Democrats to cross party lines and support her. He could simply applaud any and all Republicans who do support her. He could say that he looks forward to locking horns with the conservatives who back Cheney, because he’s confident they have this nation’s best interests at heart. And he could blast the GOP establishment’s embrace of Hageman as proof that they’ve turned into a Soviet-style cult of personality. Those wouldn’t be endorsements, sure, but they would send a clear message to Democratic voters in the state: Don’t waste your ballot on your own primary. Use it to make a difference.
Or, Biden could say nothing, sitting idly by while a patchwork of peripheral Republicans tries to save Cheney’s hide from her own party. But, after years of Democratic sermonizing on the threat to democracy, silence might be his worst option yet.