Democracy and the Liz Cheney Narrative

From CJR’s The Media Today with Jon Allsop:

A LITTLE OVER TEN YEARS AGO, Fox News hired Liz Cheney as a contributor for the 2012 election cycle. She was reportedly brought in to talk about the Republican primaries through foreign-policy and national-security lenses, and she was soon on air doing just that, decrying then-President Obama for risking “gains” that the Bush administration—which both she and her father, Dick Cheney, served, the latter, of course, as vice president—had made in Afghanistan and Iraq, and accusing Obama of “doing to America what our enemies have been unable to do,” by weakening the military. (“The American military,” she added, is “the greatest force for good the world has ever known.”) At Fox, Cheney also stood in as an occasional guest host for Sean Hannity’s show. In 2013, when Cheney left Fox to run for US Senate in Wyoming, Hannity backed her. After she lost and ran for US House instead, in 2016, Hannity backed her again. She won.

Last week, Cheney appeared during Hannity’s show again—but this time, it was during the ad break, not in the host’s seat. She had paid for Fox to air a commercial for her latest reelection campaign that had already set tongues wagging among DC-media types: it showed Dick Cheney excoriating Donald Trump as both a “coward” and a historic “threat to our republic” for trying to steal the 2020 election, before expressing his pride in his daughter for “standing up for the truth” and working to block Trump from ever returning to the White House. Unlike Liz Cheney’s 2012 commentary, this message cut against the grain of Fox’s current opinion programming—not least Hannity’s show. Her spokesperson said, of the ad placement, that it was “important not only for Fox News viewers, but for the network’s hosts and top executives, to hear former Vice President Cheney’s warning” about the danger of Trump.

In between times, of course, came Trump’s presidency and Cheney’s pivot to become his principal Republican adversary. Eventually, anyway. Following her election to Congress in 2016, she voted in line with Trump more than 90 percent of the time and rose to become the third-ranking Republican in the House, but things took a turn after the insurrection, with Cheney voting to impeach Trump, joining the committee that was subsequently established to investigate the events of January 6 (one of only two Republicans to do so), and finding herself cast out by her fellow partisans as a result. Her primary for reelection is today. She is expected to lose decisively to Harriet Hageman, her Trump-endorsed opponent.

Cheney’s anti-Trump pivot quickly made her an object of media fascination; as Bloomberg’s Joshua Green put it last year, “political press coverage thrives on two things—conflict and Trump—that Cheney delivers in one efficient package,” and Cheney clearly understood this. (It also, I added at the time, thrives on the perception of bipartisanship in the national interest, and Cheney delivered this, too.) As her primary has neared, this fascination has only intensified. TV interviews with Cheney have been billed as set-piece events, particularly in the wake of her starring role in the January 6 committee’s televised hearings. Op-ed writers who disagree with Cheney on just about everything have lionized her: Jonathan Capehart, of the Washington Post, recently called her “the Obi-Wan to Trump’s Darth Vader”; Margaret Renkl, of the New York Times, mentioned her in the same cultural breath as J.Lo. And reporters for major outlets have filed a steady trickle of campaigndispatches from Wyoming, often looking back at her Republican apostasy and forward to 2024, when she may run for president. “Liz Cheney’s political life is likely ending,” a typical headline, in the Times, read—“and just beginning.”

Some of this coverage has engaged with Cheney’s ironclad conservatism and pre–January 6 track record; after she waxed nostalgic for the days of serious policy discourse, for example, Jonathan Martin, of the Times, noted that this was a “far cry” from Cheney’s flame-throwing days at Fox, adding that while Cheney does not evince specific regrets for contributing to the rhetorical culture that birthed Trump, she did acknowledge her complicity in a “reflexive partisanship” that reached its nadir on January 6. Mostly, though, recent Cheney coverage has not deeply reckoned with her past, beyond very general references to her right-wing bona fides. In some ways, this is understandable. Day-to-day news stories about public figures don’t typically relitigate everything they’ve ever done, but focus on what they’re doing now—which, in Cheney’s case, is telling the truth about Trump when the vast majority of her co-partisans won’t. The future of democracy is a massive story at the moment, and Cheney is in the middle of it.

Still, there are grounds for nuance here. For one, Cheney’s positioning as a stalwart defender of democracy should invite more media scrutiny than it seems to. She may have voted for Trump’s impeachment after January 6, but, as I noted at the time, she dismissed Trump’s first impeachment—which came after he sought to enlist the president of Ukraine in a scheme to smear an electoral opponent—as a “sham,” and helped coordinate Republican messaging in Trump’s defense. (Trump’s first impeachment, as I also wrote, was largely memory-holed in coverage of his second.) After it became obvious that Biden had won in 2020, it took Cheney nearly two weeks to publicly tell Trump to start to make way, in a statement that the Times described as a “tiptoe” toward concession. Even after January 6, Cheney defended restrictive voting laws that state Republicans around the country passed, often under the pretext that the election was dodgy. When Jonathan Swan, of Axios, pressed Cheney as to what problems the new laws were actually solving, Cheney pivoted to praise Al Gore for conceding the 2000 election to her dad.

Cheney’s recent record in other policy areas is consequential, too: she voted for a bipartisan gun-reform bill, something of an evolution from her past stern rhetoric about the Second Amendment, but she fulsomely praised the Supreme Court for overturning Roe v. Wade. Again, some of the recent coverage and commentary has mentioned such things—but, again, it has usually only done so in passing. Again, stories about a politician needn’t mention their entire record. But these stories are ultimately about her reelection bid, and her recent record across a range of matters of public concern is surely highly relevant to that. (This feeds into another matter: how the press characterizes Cheney in relation to the rest of her party. She has moderated her stances on certain issues, but her colleagues have moved to the right more than she has moved to the center. The fact she is now an apostate says more about them than her.)

Much of the recent Cheney coverage that I’ve seen has explicitly widened the lens beyond her current race, casting it as a pivot point in the wider sweep of her career before assessing (and, in some cases, overtly encouraging) her 2024 aspirations. Cheney is, at least implicitly, casting the race in such terms, too; as The Atlantic’s Mark Leibovich put it recently, she seems to see her primary and the media attention it has garnered as a “prime-time launching pad” for what comes next. The media narrative around a presidential launch (formal or suggested) is, of course, not the final word on a candidacy. But it often gets baked in. If Cheney does run, she will surely do so to thwart Trump and confront his anti-democratic lies, without any hope of winning. But all presidential candidates, even single-issue ones, merit scrutiny that is both broad and deep. That’s what democracy is all about.

It’s hard to imagine a more urgent story than saving democracy right now—and Cheney’s role in the fight deserves to be front and center. But as I’ve written before, including in the context of Cheney’s narrative ascendancy, saving democracy in any meaningful sense requires not only playing defense against corrosive lies, but also convening broad debates around substantive issues. The press must be hypervigilant around election lies, but it cannot afford to lower the bar for meaningful scrutiny to the acceptance of basic and obvious facts about election results. A lot of recent Cheney coverage that I’ve seen has dwelt on her newfound support among Democrats, but much of it has failed to dwell as much on whether it’s healthy for democracy that so many people feel they have to disregard their usual political preferences to protect the rules of the game.

Last year, as Cheney broke with the rest of the GOP over the election, Maureen Dowd, of the Times, cast a critical eye on liberal cable channels’ sudden veneration of her as an “avatar” of “fact based” politics; Dick Cheney’s lies about the Iraq war, Dowd wrote, set a template for Trump’s election lies, and Liz Cheney cheered those on, including from a “patronage perch” at the State Department. As when she appeared on Fox a decade ago, foreign policy remains a preoccupation for the younger Cheney, who remains a hawk, and so it’s particularly jarring that coverage of her post–January 6 pivot has so often glossed over her views in this area. A year ago this week, after Kabul fell to the Taliban, Cheney was interviewed through this lens—though she was invited to weigh in almost as a pundit would, more than as a subject of accountability.

As during her stint at Fox, Cheney could soon be a pundit again, either in the buildup to or in lieu of a 2024 tilt. This time, as the New Republic’s Daniel Strauss and Alex Shephard noted in a recent piece that addressed both Cheney’s Fox days and what might come next for her, she’s more likely to land at CNN, or even MSNBC; as the former conservative blogger Matthew Sheffield put it, “she really does fit the mold that the Sunday shows like to have on—very bellicose foreign policy, critical of non-defense spending, and a Republican,” and there’s a “never-ending market on cable punditry shows for Republicans who don’t like Donald Trump but who also don’t want themselves to admit that they created him.” These sorts of views and characters have always been more worthy of media scrutiny than adulation. They still are.

More on Liz Cheney and the midterms:

  • Wyoming: While Cheney has given major interviews recently, she hasn’t been totally ubiquitous on TV screens or elsewhere. According to Martin, of the Times, she is mindful that the January 6 hearings have been “viewed by critics as an attention-seeking opportunity,” and so has “turned down some opportunities that could have been helpful to her ambitions, most notably proposals from documentary filmmakers.” Security is also a concern, with Cheney having fielded serious threats to her safety. Per Leibovich, her campaign events “are never publicized, and reporters are only selectively alerted.” Bob Beck, of Wyoming Public Radio, told Slate recently that ahead of a planned interview with Cheney, he had to contend with a level of vetting he’d rarely seen before.
  • Alaska: Sarah Palin—the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee turned right-wing media darling turned New York Timeslibel litigant—will also face voters today, in Alaska, where she is standing both in a special election for the state’s lone US House seat and a primary to fill the seat permanently from next year. Jazmine Ulloa reports, for the Times, that Alaska voters seem torn as to whether Palin is really committed to representing them or has been distracted by national fame, with her motives being debated “in churches and coffee shops, on conservative airwaves and right-wing social media.”
  • Pennsylvania: In April, the campaign of Mehmet Oz, now the Republican nominee for US Senate in Pennsylvania, posted a video in which he walked around a grocery store (whose name he got wrong) marveling at the excessive cost of vegetables for crudité, and blaming Biden for it. For some reason, the video went viral yesterday—so Philip Bump, of the Post, took the opportunity to assess what has happened to crudité costs in the meantime. They appear to have gone down, Bump reports.

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