A couple of questions sprang immediately to mind when I heard this week’s news that Mary Cheney is launching a new polling firm with a handful of her GOP buddies.
1. How tempting will it be for her to field a poll or two just to see how unpopular Big Sister Liz was by the end of her Wyoming Senate run?
2. Screw polling: Why doesn’t Mary go all in and run for office herself?
Stay with me here. For all our grousing about political dynasties, Americans clearly have a thing for them. Forget the Kennedys, Clintons, and Bushes; the parade of sons, daughters, sibs, and spouses-of who’ve stridden the U.S. political stage over the decades is enough to impress the Plantagenets.
(I’ve long suspected it’s because voters are lazy. We see a familiar name on a ballot line—Gore, Bayh, Casey, Udall, Landrieu, Pryor, Murkowski, Chafee, Begich, Dodd, Dingell—and think, “Hey, those guys didn’t get us all killed last time. What the hell, let’s give ’em another whirl!”)
For a while there, Liz seemed the obvious inheritor of the Cheney political mantle. Dick’s elder daughter is, in many ways, a picture perfect conservative: perfect kids, perfect hair, perfectly orthodox ideology that she defends articulately and with great passion. She is a zealot with a friendly smile, a combo seemingly tailor-made for today’s Republican Party.
Unfortunately for the Cheney brand, Liz’s instincts as a candidate proved to be utter crap. Before even entering the Wyoming Senate race, she’d managed to tick off most of her own party with her ham-fisted challenge to good conservative soldier Mike Enzi. And once she really got rolling, Liz efficiently alienated much of the state with her high-handed carpetbaggery, then picked a high-profile fight with her only sister over gay marriage. Taking multiple public jabs at Mary’s life choices—the getting married part, not the being a lesbian part—may have scored Liz points with devout social conservatives, but it convinced pretty much everyone else that she’s a heartless jerk who cares more about her own ambitions than about her kin.
By contrast, Mary came out of that whole dust-up with a deep reservoir of good will among non-wingers. Think of it as a familial version of what Liz’s candidacy did for Mike Enzi: Pre-Liz, Enzi was just another conservative lawmaker receiving little love from moderates or liberals or the political media. But once Liz took out after him, Enzi magically morphed into a tragic statesman, winning sympathetic clucks and plaudits even from liberal pundits.
Liz gave Mary an even bigger boost. While Enzi typically sounded sad and befuddled by Liz’s assault, Mary got fired up, ramming her sister’s disapproving remarks straight back down her throat, first on Facebook and later in The New York Times. Things got so ugly that mom and dad felt compelled to step in and try to restore peace. Not that it did Liz a lick of good.
But Mary…Mary came out looking like a total ass-kicker, a proud Republican who nonetheless refused to apologize for expecting—and claiming—the same rights as any hetero American.
Needless to say, there is an opening for this kind of standard-bearer in a GOP laboring to rebrand itself as tolerant in the face of rapidly shifting public opinion on gay marriage.
Practically speaking, who knows what kind of candidate Mary would make? Unlike Liz, she has always been a behind-the-scenes operator. Her wife, Heather Poe, is said to be extremely private. Sexuality aside, it’s hardly surprising that neither woman has wanted to subject herself to the public pillorying that comes with being on the political front lines.
Still, those who know the family say Mary is comfortable with who she is, a valuable quality in a candidate, and is as terrifyingly strong-willed as Liz, if not more so. After years in the Republican trenches, her politics are presumably acceptable to at least the party’s mainstream. She doesn’t have her sister’s foreign policy credentials, but considering how unpopular Liz and Dick’s neoconism now is even within certain corners of the GOP, that’s probably just as well. Equally important, Mary’s outspokenness on gay marriage certainly doesn’t mean she’s some sniffy cultural liberal. A Cheney insider once told me of her, “She liked to hang out with the Secret Service agents and shoot automatic weapons. She’s way into guns.”
Gun crazy? How perfect is that? Surely Mary’s affinity for firearms would make up for her nontraditional marriage in the eyes of some of the base. (Go on: Insert your best gun-toting lesbian joke here. You know you want to.) Besides, no one is suggesting that she run in some blood-red enclave like Kansas or Wyoming. Far more sensible would be for Mary to try her hand in her home state of Virginia, which these days is solidly purple, especially in the Washington, D.C., suburbs where she and Heather live.
Do I think it’s likely that Mary is going to ditch her below-the-radar persona and run for Congress or the General Assembly or the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors anytime soon? No. Which makes me a little sad. The GOP is still struggling to shed its hidebound, out-of-touch image, especially with voters not yet drawing Social Security. Mary replacing Liz in the spotlight could send a signal that the party is expanding its thinking on one of the key social issues to bedevil it in recent years.
Of course, as with any political run, Mary could have an awful experience, get chewed up by the media and the opposition, and get kicked to the curb by the fringier base elements without even a second glance.
Then again, she’d be hard pressed to do worse than Liz.