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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