An election defeat of nearly 40 points isn’t usually the launch pad for a presidential campaign, but Liz Cheney has made it clear she plans to run in 2024.
The Wyoming congresswoman and daughter of the former vice president was wiped out in her GOP primary on Tuesday night. The loss, however, brought about not a somber concession speech to a room full of half-drunk supporters, but a quaint, made-for-TV call to arms invoking Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.
Cheney had a choice after Jan. 6 between political viability, which would have involved modulating his outrage at Trump’s 2020 election lies, or political self-immolation. She chose a spectacular act of self-immolation – lighting up the night sky like the nuclear reactor at the start of the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl.”
It was an admirable loss. Rarely is an elected official willing to sacrifice office for a deeply felt matter of principle. Cheney did it without hesitation. History will remember her fondly, and better than other members of her party who repeated or tolerated lies simply to maintain or gain political power.
That said, she arguably cut herself off from positively influencing the direction of the Republican Party through electoral politics. If she runs for president, either in a GOP primary or as an independent in a general election, the effort will be insignificant at best, and possibly quite destructive.
If Cheney is willing to see reason on this issue, she will be content to use her prodigious fundraising ability and national platform to continue to argue against Trump as a lawyer. Anything else would be madness.
Cheney referenced Lincoln’s defeat “before he won the most important election of all” when thinking of herself. They weren’t particularly fit. Lincoln’s race against Stephen Douglas for the Senate was not a suicide mission. He came very close to victory and represented a burgeoning political movement. His subsequent bid for the Republican presidential nomination was a distant one, but he was a serious figure who had achieved a national reputation and was comfortably in the middle of his party’s consensus.
Cheney, an outcast within his own party, is in a different situation. Moreover, strategically and by temperament, she is not Lincolnian.
Although he had firm principles, Lincoln was always a political pragmatist and fundamentally a party man ready to maneuver if necessary. Cheney’s approach after Jan. 6 resembled less that of Lincoln than that of William Lloyd Garrison, the hardline abolitionist publisher who unabashedly took radical and unpopular positions and expected the world to move towards him.
It just so happened that the world moved to Garrison, but, in the meantime, he wasn’t running for office.
There is no way Cheney is trying to transition from the role of disgraceful prophet in her party, which she has willingly embraced for the past two years, to that of Republican breeder.
It’s hard to overstate the scale of Cheney’s collapse. She went from winning her primary with 73% of the vote in 2020 to just 29% which depended heavily on Democratic cross-votes. Wyoming is particularly Trumpy, but there’s no reason to believe there’s much appetite for Cheney’s approach elsewhere either.
House Republicans who voted for impeachment have been hounded as members of the “Cowboys” gang targeted in the Earp Vendetta Ride, even as they tried to appease GOP primary voters. Cheney not only voted for impeachment, but stood out as the emblem of Republican resistance to Trump and helped lead the House committee on Jan. 6, putting no procedural or other restraints on partisan Democrats who make up the bulk of the panel.
There just isn’t a market for it among Republicans. On top of that, Cheney’s alienation from his party is likely to lean on itself. Already, she has said she would “find it very difficult” to support Ron DeSantis, the leading Republican alternative to Trump. In doing so, it identifies with a fraction of a fraction of the party that is so small that it is practically non-existent.
Should she run in a primary, she would be firmly in the path of Larry Hogan, who could constitute about 5% of the total Republican electorate. It’s entirely possible that those voters themselves are so unhappy with the GOP that Cheney wouldn’t turn them down to any other non-Republican candidate. But if it’s wrong, or if she’s successful, she would only be taking voters to another, more viable alternative to Trump. She might not even make it to the debate stage with Trump, if the party writes rules to exclude her.
What would make such a race worth the risk, at least at the margin, of making it more likely that Trump would win the nomination again?
An independent race would no longer make sense. Again, his vote share would likely be tiny. In 2020, libertarian candidate Jo Jorgenson obtained 1.18% of the vote. Even if Cheney could get more, chances are she’s a place for Republicans pushed back by Trump to park their votes rather than go all the way to Biden. This means that, just as with a possible primary race, it would help Trump at the margins.
Captain Ahab may have made some errors in judgment in his handling of the Pequod, but at least he never allowed himself to affirmatively aid his great adversary, the White Whale.
One thing that has been remarkable about Cheney’s performance over the past two years is how lucid she has apparently been about what it means for her future in the House of Representatives, which is that she won’t have one. . On the other hand, a presidential election of any kind would be tantamount to giving in to illusion. If Lincoln was stubborn, he was never fanciful. Cheney should realize that she has taken a path that, whatever its other advantages, does not end in electoral vindication.