Sorry, Dad

Liz Cheney Uses Syria to (Try to) Salvage Her Campaign Train Wreck

Michelle Cottle on the Senate candidate’s cringe-inducing summer—and sudden opposition to a Syria strike.

Liz Cheney wants everyone to know that, were she in the Senate, there’s no way she would support President Obama’s request for congressional authorization of military intervention in Syria.

That, at least, is what Cheney told the crowd of 150 Jackson Hole Tea Partiers who gathered Tuesday night at the Snow King Resort in Wyoming to hear her make the case for why she should be their next U.S. senator. According to one meeting attendee, the candidate’s Syria declaration sparked loud, energetic applause.

The response is hardly surprising. Public support for wading into the Syria morass is downright feeble—the most recent Reuters/Ipsos poll puts it at 19 percent—and Tea Partiers in particular are known less for their interventionist leanings than Rand Paulian isolationist ones.

But Liz? One might be surprised by a lack of cruise-missile enthusiasm from the co-founder of the megahawkish Keep America Safe—a woman who has rarely encountered a Middle Eastern regime she didn’t want to overthrow or at least bomb. It was just last summer, in the midst of spreading the neocon gospel with a vigor that must have made her daddy proud, that Cheney fretted to Sean Hannity that the president ought to take aggressive action against Syria lest the regime’s WMD wind up in the hands of al Qaeda.

In her role as hard-ass conservative pundit, the pro-Gitmo, pro-waterboarding Liz has long been second to none in advocating liberal use of the U.S. military. But as a Senate candidate, especially one looking to woo Tea Party types, her situation is somewhat more ticklish. On the one hand, most Americans do not share her neocon fever. On the other, for Liz suddenly to adopt a hands-off take on Syria would open her up to charges of blatant hypocrisy and political calculation.

Faced with such a conundrum, what’s a hawkish yet ambitious Republican gal to do? Blame it all on Obama, of course. So it is that Cheney explained that she opposed the president’s Syria request because he has already cocked up the situation irretrievably with his “amateurish approach to national security and foreign policy.” As Cheney explained it, Obama should have backed the rebels two years ago. Now he’s offering too little too late, and she’ll have no part in it.

Dishonest? Perhaps. Politically expedient? Most definitely.

In one fell swoop, Liz managed to get on the popular side of the intervention question by blaming her apparent change of heart on the weakness and incompetence of Obama—by far her favorite political theme and one passionately shared by a huge chunk of her party. Better still, if Sen. Mike Enzi winds up supporting Obama’s authorization request, she’ll have the pleasure of denouncing him as the president’s lapdog. Not bad for a first-time candidate.

And God knows Liz needed a break. The first few weeks of her Senate candidacy have been full of bumpy moments. The July announcement of her candidacy provoked a tsunami of criticism and scorn from much of her party, as pretty much the entire GOP establishment rushed to express its support for Enzi.

August wasn’t much better. The month opened with an embarrassing kerfuffle over Cheney’s wrongly acquired fishing license. To receive a resident license in Wyoming, an applicant must have lived in the state for 365 consecutive days—and for some reason, Cheney’s application listed her as having lived there for 10 years, rather than the couple of months she had actually been in Teton County. Cheney paid the $220 fine for making a false statement while blaming the error on the clerk who took her application. Folks in the state are still clucking about her carpetbaggerish screwup, says local reporter Greg Nickerson, who covers politics for the nonprofit news site WyoFile. “People on both the left and right, longtime Wyoming folks, are still pretty angry,” he says. “I don’t think people will forget very easily.”

Then, at the tail end of August, Cheney wound up in the national news again thanks to a public spat with her younger sister, Mary, over gay marriage. On Friday Liz’s campaign issued an out-of-the-blue statement declaring her “strongly pro-life” and “not pro–gay marriage.” Team Cheney explained that it felt moved to clarify the candidate’s position after receiving reports that some voters had been getting polling calls asking, “Are you aware that Liz Cheney supports abortion and aggressively promotes gay marriage?” Cheney denounced the “push poll” and accused both her primary opponent, Enzi, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is backing Enz, of dirty tricks. Both the NRSC and Enzi’s camp denied the claims, with NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring firing back: “With all due respect, it looks like Liz Cheney is fishing without a license again.”

Mary Cheney, a lesbian who married her longtime partner last year, was still less impressed. On Friday evening, she gave her little sister a spanking on Facebook: “For the record, I love my sister, but she is dead wrong on the issue of marriage.” Borrowing a line from their gay-marriage-supporting dad—“Freedom means freedom for everyone”—Mary said the issue was “not something to be decided by a show of hands” and urged Facebook users to “please like and share if you agree.”

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Now, open warfare with the NRSC may have its upsides for Liz, whose entire campaign revolves around denouncing a corrupt, spineless political establishment. (Liz Cheney: political outsider!) Still, the whole episode had the whiff of a campaign scrambling to play defense, a particularly sad state of affairs for a candidate whose standard stump speech includes a favorable comparison to Winston Churchill. (He stood up to the Nazis. She’s standing up to Mike Enzi. Get it?)

So while foreign policy is unlikely to sway many Wyoming primary voters, maybe the Syria resolution will give Liz the chance to cut loose on the trail—to really sharpen her teeth on Obama in the policy area about which she cares most passionately. At the very least, it will give her something to talk about other than fishing.