There are many reasons why Liz Cheney’s Senate campaign failed to get any traction in Wyoming. As a Washington insider who spent her professional life in Northern Virginia, she faced inherent challenges running an insurgent campaign against a well-liked senator. She never was able to secure support from other Republican elected officials, relying instead on past allies from the Bush-Cheney presidential campaigns. Her all-too-public family feuds were a painful distraction to running an orderly, focused campaign.
But most significantly, Cheney found that her calling card in public life as a spokesperson for a muscular, hawkish foreign policy just wasn’t playing politically — even in a Republican primary in a deeply conservative state. Cheney entered the race as a go-to conservative expert on the Middle East, but she barely talked about foreign policy on the campaign trail. Voters were more interested in her views on gay marriage than her bromides against the Obama administration over Benghazi.
Her dropping out is a symbolic nail in the coffin to the politics of the Bush-Cheney administration, when foreign policy trumped all and aggressive tactics to combat Islamic extremism were initially greeted with public support. Now, Americans are treating the latest eyebrow-raising news that America is content to disengage from the Middle East as al Qaida reasserts itself in the Middle East with a yawn. This weekend’s headlines from The New York Times could have been fodder for a Liz Cheney campaign ad ripping the Obama administration for passivity — a la John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Instead, she ended her campaign with a whimper. Indeed, the one area where President Obama receives adequate marks these days is on foreign policy.
The Republican party now finds itself divided on national security, with ascendant tea-party elements eager to rebuke the legacy of the Bush administration. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a potential presidential contender, is praising NSA leaker Edward Snowden while suggesting that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper serve jail time. That would have been shocking to hear from any Republican in good standing in the Bush-Cheney years. Even the most hawkish Republicans aren’t suggesting putting American boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria, acutely aware of war weariness back home.
Liz Cheney didn’t struggle in the race because of her foreign policy views. But they didn’t bolster her credentials, either. That itself is a sign of how much the Republican Party has changed in the last decade. Republican candidates used to gain political traction by criticizing opponents as weak on terrorism. Now those voices find themselves leading from behind.
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Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”
“We haven’t seen a true leftist since FDR, so many millions are coming out of the woodwork to vote for Bernie Sanders; he is the Occupy movement now come to life in the political arena.” So says Bill Maher in his Hollywood Reporter cover story (more a stream-of-consciousness riff than an essay, actually). Conservative states may never vote for a socialist in the general election, but “this stuff has never been on the table, and these voters have never been activated.” Maher saves most of his bile for Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, writing that by nominating Palin as vice president “John McCain is the one who opened the Book of the Dead and let the monsters out.” And Trump is picking up where Palin left off.