The GOP’s Wild West


In the video announcing her Senate candidacy, Liz Cheney wears a jean shirt and stands in front of a field and rail fence. It is meant to convey Wyoming, the state she would like to represent and where she has lived for only a year or so. Her opponent, Sen. Mike Enzi, is a three-term incumbent and could achieve the same effect by standing alone in a room. He is a 40-year veteran of Wyoming politics who built a business there and whose lack of Beltway trappings would help him do well in a ranking of sitting senators least likely to be mistaken for one.

If this were a campaign based on geography, Cheney would be sunk. That is why – despite the tableau – the video announces not so much that she’s running from Wyoming but that she’s really running to become a senator from a Conservitopia, an ideological place where mere garden-variety conservatism is not enough.

In a Republican Party roiled by purity tests over immigration, taxes and abortion, Liz Cheney has launched the most precise one. Her opponent has no glaring breaks with conservative orthodoxy. He spends his weekends at home and not on the Washington talk shows where Cheney is a frequent commentator. There is no obvious geographical or ideological rationale for her candidacy. Instead, it is built on age and aggression. The promise of Cheney’s candidacy is that she will go to Washington to be an energetic warrior for the conservative cause. By taking on a solid conservative, she will either clarify precisely what a constitutional conservative is or she will launch a high-profile, messy fight that will create a spectacle of GOP discord and acrimony for all to see.

Cheney argues that the conservative cause needs a “new generation of leaders” who “can’t just go along to get along.” She is making a version of the case used against former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar: It’s no longer enough to be a solid conservative. Evidence of the shifting definitions of conservative can be seen in Enzi’s rankings. National Journal ranks him as the eighth-most conservative senator, but Heritage Action only gives him a middle-of-the-pack 67 percent score. Enzi hasn’t grown disconnected from his constituents the way Lugar had, which makes this a more pure form of the purity test. In 2010, Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett was bounced in a primary because he voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program and worked with Oregon’s Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden on a health care plan. Enzi’s critics will try to make his vote in support of an Internet sales tax a key attack line, but that will be harder to do than exploiting TARP. (Enzi didn’t vote for immigration reform or background checks.)

Cheney’s supporters argue that she will be a true believer in the mold of Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas, who is proving day by day in fights with Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Calif., and John McCain, Ariz., that he doesn’t want to just get along. In the ongoing battle against progressives, Enzi “is not putting points on the board for conservatives,” says Erick Erickson, editor-in-chief of RedState. He says he backs Cheney because she will score those points. “We need GOP senators to be willing to ‘beat up on their colleagues,’ ” argues Kurt Schlichter at Townhall. “It’s not about collegiality in the cloakroom. We want you hated, despised, and targeted because that will mean you are getting something conservative done.”

The race comes at an interesting time for Senate Republicans, when some members are showing signs of tiring of the purity tests. “Are we here to just be part of a debating society where we argue all day?” Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tenn., said to me recently. “Or are we up here to accomplish something?” Alexander was among the 14 Republicans who voted with Democrats to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Members of this group, which President Obama has called “the common-sense caucus,” have also been working behind the scenes with the White House to find some kind of long-term budget deal since the spring.

On the other side of the GOP caucus is a new guard of younger members impatient with Senate niceties. Cheney seeks to join that gang, though that will be complicated. The first problem is that new guard member Sen. Rand Paul, Ky., isn’t a fan of Cheney (or her father, the former vice president) and supports Enzi. In particular, Cheney and Paul are on the opposite ends of the foreign-policy spectrum. She’s a hawk. He’s not.

The other challenge for Cheney is her father’s legacy on fiscal issues. The Bush administration is not well-regarded for its fiscal stewardship. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney famously told Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill that “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” The precise meaning of the quote is in dispute — Cheney may have been making a point about the political cost of deficits — but many budget hawks made the case to Cheney while he was in a position of power that the administration could do more to slow federal spending. Unlike on national security matters where Cheney gladly bucked the realists in the State Department and stood his ground during internal fights, he had no such reputation when it came to shrinking government. If Liz Cheney’s role is to be a fearless, clear-eyed warrior for smaller government, a good test of her purity would be her views on the Bush-Cheney budgets.

The usual worry for a party in a primary fight is that it will open up a spot for an eventual challenger from the other party. There’s little danger of that in Wyoming, which makes it a perfect place for this intramural scrimmage. It could be long and bloody; both candidates will be well-funded. Democrats hope that the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has pledged to support Enzi, will have to spend millions against the sure-to-be-well-financed Cheney. They also hope that Cheney will be forced to make ever more extravagant claims about Washington Republicans to give voters a clear rationale for why the unobjectionable Enzi should be turned out. That Republican Washington establishment hopes to regain control of the Senate in 2014. To keep that from happening, Democrats hope Cheney and Enzi will be bloodying themselves for months to come.

John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.

© 2013, Slate

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