Politicians' Career Options and Partisan Affiliations (No, this column is not only about Liz Cheney)
by Neil H. Buchanan
Ever since January 6 and the Trump-inspired attempt to overthrow America's constitutional republic, one of the few strong voices on the political right condemning Donald Trump has been Liz Cheney, who as of this writing still holds the third-ranking position in the Republican leadership in the U.S. House. Not only has Cheney refused to tone down her condemnation of Trump, she has even said bluntly that she will not support Trump if her party nominates him to run again in 2024. Compared to Mitch McConnell's "I'll support the Republican nominee, whether it is Trump or anyone else," Cheney's approach is more than refreshing.
In my Dorf on Law column last Thursday, I wrote some guardedly positive things about Cheney. After noting the inescapable fact that she is awful on policy -- at least as bad as one would expect Dick Cheney's daughter to be -- I held her up as someone who has become a genuine profile in political courage. I should emphasize that even this non-policy-related commitment to principle is rather new for her, as (among many other examples) she did not have any problem voting against Trump's first impeachment. And as far as I know, she has not spent her time trying to put a leash on the extremists in her caucus, from Jim Jordan to Mo Brooks to Louie Gohmert to Paul Gosar.
Even so, I gave her genuine credit for what she has been doing in the last four months. On the comment board, however, one of our dedicated readers (while mostly agreeing with the column) suggested that maybe I was being too kind:
I would just venture one small quibble. You say Liz Cheney's stand on principle "might end her career." To my—admittedly limited—understanding, the Cheney family is something akin to royalty in Wyoming. Sort of like Romney in Utah. If that's right, then, as with Romney, I'm not sure Cheney puts much or anything at risk with criticizing Former Guy. And, occasional mouth noise emissions aside, I note that, per 538, her career voting alignment with F.G. exceeds 90%. Even with the objections to the electors and impeachment, it's not like her votes impacted the outcomes at all. It seems like she gets all the benefits of "virtue signaling" or whatever you want to call it with little or no personal cost.
This raises an interesting set of issues, so I will use that comment as an excuse to think about Cheney's potential future and more broadly about political careerism.
To be clear, the comment quoted above was posted this past Thursday evening. Not only was that literally last month, but the news cycles in the ensuing five days have turned everyone's expectations upside down. At the time that the comment was written, it was more than reasonable to say that Cheney's status as Wyoming royalty insulates her from any real consequences of her apostasy. Moreover, because Cheney had already withstood a challenge to her leadership earlier this year, she seemed especially safe.
Less than a week later, however, things look quite different. Mitt Romney was lustily booed at a Republican convention in Utah over the weekend, but that incident admittedly has no immediate consequence, because his term in the Senate runs through 2024. He might not even choose to run again, but if he does, it will be because he has figured out a way to remain viable even after voting (twice) to convict Trump in impeachment trials and continuing to reject the Big Lie about the supposedly stolen 2020 election.
Cheney, however, is reportedly now in real trouble, with her dimwitted party leader refusing to support her (while he backpedals furiously to appease Trumpists) and increasing numbers of her colleagues openly attacking her and predicting that she will be dumped from the leadership team. It was already clear that she was going to be challenged in her primary by a Trump cult member, and that will happen in just about a year. Her political hide is in more immediate trouble than Romney's.
Far from backing down, Cheney is making no apologies and refuses to take the edge off of her remarks. She directly accuses Trump of being guilty of what he is, in fact, guilty of doing. Earlier this week, she engaged in a bitter exchange with Trump, including her tweet that "[t]he 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system."
Again, the commenter is right that the Cheney name has been political gold in Wyoming, which means that she might not ultimately lose her seat. But becoming a reviled and ignored backbencher is a meaningfully dire consequence for someone with her background and ambition. Indeed, if she is stripped of her current position, she might not find it worthwhile to stay in office. Where, after all, is the future for someone like her in the Trumpublican Party?
One of the themes to which I have returned several times on this blog is politicians' career alternatives. Former Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona chose not to run for reelection in 2018 when he realized that he was no longer in step with Arizona Republicans, who even at that point were wildly pro-Trump. (Their current insanity in ordering a re-re-recount, led by a conspiracy theorist, is completely in character.) One of the things that he has said and written since then is essentially, "Hey, guys, life on the other side is just fine! You don't have to be an elected politician for your whole life."
The default argument for someone like Flake, Romney, or Cheney to compromise enough to stay in office is that their continued presence is uniquely valuable in some way. But when it comes to policy, inasmuch as the Republicans have policy views these days, Cheney or Romney would be replaced by people who are no different from the rest of the caucus, opposing everything that Biden and the Democrats put forward. Flake's replacement (Kirsten Sinema) is a conservative Democrat, but that happened because the Republican who was nominated in Flake's place was so extreme that she lost the general election. Flake's departure, then, actually mattered to policy, because if he were still in the Senate, Mitch McConnell would still be doing his Grim Reaper thing as majority leader.
For Flake, then, he might feel some regret about not fighting it out, thinking that he could have kept his party in power and prevented Biden from pursuing what Flake most likely views as an evil socialist agenda. But he made his decision precisely because he knew that his time was up unless he completely recanted his heresy and embraced Trump in full. (Even then, there is no guarantee that he would have been forgiven.) Similarly, Romney and Cheney could at least try to walk back their votes of conscience, and they are choosing not to do so (thus far).
Romney and Cheney are actually more like Mark Sanford, the once-disgraced South Carolina governor who became an insufficiently Trumpish congressman and lost his seat to a primary challenger in 2018. That is, all three are/were in situations where their presence or absence changes nothing about the balance of power in Washington, given who would (or did) replace them. Their only question is whether they are willing to betray their own beliefs to stay in power. Apparently, they are not.
Yet, given the analysis here, it might be tempting to say that people like me should not bother applauding any of these Republicans for standing on principle. After all, as the comment quoted above notes, their stands seem to change nothing. If we focus on the last six words of the comment -- "with little or no personal cost" -- should that change anything?
Even for those who confront political reckonings, my argument has always been that facing the loss of political clout is not much of a "personal cost," at least not one that we should care about. I am younger than Romney and a bit older than Cheney and Flake, but in any event, I left jobs for reasons of principle when I was much younger. I am not saying that as a way to prove my virtue but to say that people change career directions all the time, sometimes because they refuse to bend. And as much as I love my current position, I can imagine circumstances in which politically imposed changes could make it important to take a risky stand. Being older, and more financially secure, makes that less intimidating, not more so.
And Cheney and Romney are, unlike me, actually freakin' rich! The only excuse for them to fight and claw to stay in their current positions seems to be that these people have tasted something that I can only imagine: actual power. The problem is that, even though they are on the spectrum between being accustomed to holding public office and being addicted to it, they all know -- or should know -- that they do not truly have much power.
Honestly, the only person who might actually be powerful in a way that is all but impossible to replace -- in a bad way -- is Mitch McConnell. (Trump is a more complicated story.) The rest are in what we think of as powerful positions, but they are of no real consequence as individuals.
Moreover, even to the extent that being in the House minority leadership or the Senate confers some power, it is difficult to see how any of them are wielding it in a useful way. Now that they are freed of being slaves to Trumpism, Romney and others could start running public-service announcements to encourage people to be vaccinated. Or they could come out in favor of anti-gerrymandering proposals, criticize states (like my current home state of Florida) for disenfranchising ex-felons, or adopt any number of good-government positions that in a different time would have been viewed as nonpartisan.
What should make a Mitt Romney more uncomfortable, being in a party with Bernie Sanders or a party with Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn, who recently disparaged Democrats' universal child care proposal by reminding people that the Soviet Union had universal child care? Given that a person is going to be uncomfortable with many people in any political coalition, one has to choose one's allies, which means choosing when to stay silent even after a colleague says something objectionable. Other than Sanders's insistence on labeling himself a "democratic socialist," is he really more objectionable to Romney than Blackburn is? Or than Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are?
Hell, thirty Republican senators voted against confirming Merrick Garland as Biden's Attorney General, including not just the Sedition Caucus but even supposed moderates like Marco Rubio and Ben Sasse. Yes, even Sasse joined a majority of that caucus to say that one of the most qualified, centrist jurists in the country should not be confirmed to the president's cabinet. But Romney and others who are on the record as rejecting Trump's lies are apparently willing to say, "Yeah, this is still my team."
Why not change teams? Perhaps Romney and others truly believe that investing in public health, families, education, and all kinds of infrastructure is inflationary, or something. They might actually believe that slightly increasing corporate taxes will kill jobs. It just does not seem likely, and not only because that is all nonsense. Even if they do believe those things, they could caucus with the Democrats and vote nay when their consciences demand it.
Instead, they sit tight and join their colleagues in making snarky remarks about Biden's failure to unify the country, even as they offer bad-faith counter-proposals on issue after issue. They made a big leap by sticking to their principles about 2020, but this has in no way freed their minds to stop backing the maniacs in their party.
Having jeopardized their careers, what would be their best paths forward? The people in question are admirably unwilling to lie about this one big thing, but that has not led them to be truly independent of the virus that has infected their party. It is possible that they are in every other way card-carrying members of the current Republican Party, but if opposing the Big Lie is reason enough to risk one's political future, maybe they should rethink why they are still in league with people who would happily destroy the Constitution.
I suppose that there probably are a lot of fun and even thrilling things about being in Congress. People who are willing to throw that away ought also to be willing to break their partisan habits and do what is necessary to save democracy.