“No,” Cheney replied. “I think you can’t be off course with the fluctuations in public opinion polls.”
The exchange echoed for days as a window into what critics viewed as Cheney’s breathtaking arrogance, widely seen as the main engine behind the toppling of the government into a war that had lasted – and was far more expensive – than anything Bush had prepared Land for the beginning five years earlier.
The Cheney-Raddatz exchange comes to mind now, 13 years later, when Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) Gave the family what is likely the cheapest coverage in mainstream media in three decades – back to the days when Dick Cheney has been widely portrayed as the persistent, understated Secretary of Defense of the First Gulf War, rather than the sinister Vice President in the shadow of the Second Gulf War.
If the Washington news media believes the Cheneys are getting it right by confronting Donald Trump over his role in the Capitol Rebellion, surely father and daughter must privately wonder if they are doing anything wrong.
Notably, however, Liz Cheney has lost her old reputation for living on her father’s name and ideas and has morphed into her new status – courageous fortune teller in a party dominated by astute Trump enablers – mainly by it draws on a family heritage: indifference to dissenting opinions.
Liz Cheney certainly knew that there was going to be violent backlash within the Republican caucus of the house in which she ranks third for criticizing and voting against Trump. Her answer was essentially: So?
What looks arrogant and even contemptuous in one light looks principled and conscientious in another. Her move begs the question of whether paying short-term costs – in challenges to their leadership position and the vitriol of Trump partisans – can pay a long-term dividend for improved national stature.
It may be too early to get carried away. Liz Cheney has some time to wriggle from a brave position to some kind of grouching shelter practiced by fellow Republicans who share their disdain for Trump but are afraid of him. Kevin McCarthy, the minority chairman of the House of Representatives, whose milder criticism of Trump has left him less exposed, has already started a climb.
But as long as Liz Cheney keeps her cool, she’ll be one of the most interesting people in contemporary politics as Republicans plan her future after the Trump presidency. She offers a case study on a topic that interests both her father and Donald Trump: the psychological dimensions of leadership.
Dick Cheney’s leadership style was shaped by a stoic tradition in American culture celebrated in borderline mythology, in which words are used sparingly, actions alone convey strength, and personal flashes and hunger for consent indicate weakness and sissification. Donald Trump’s leadership style reflects recent cultural trends ranging from Las Vegas to pro wrestling. Bombast and self-promotion not only mean, but are just as important or more important than any political goal.
However, these two different styles have some common features: Both believe in the optics of power and that the projection of fearlessness creates its own reality. You have power because you pretend you do and the rest of the world responds. Both Dick Cheney and Trump resisted public recognition of uncertainty or even complexity in their thinking. Both were reluctant to admit mistakes or apologize.
Liz Cheney, who at 54 is clearly a product of her father’s values, offers the prospect of putting the two leadership styles to the test. This is especially true because the younger generation Trump acolytes like Donald Trump Jr. (43) and the cocky Popinjay MP Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) (38) have made it their business to punish them.
To the news that Gaetz will face Liz Cheney in Wyoming on Thursday, an unnamed one Cheney’s aide told the Washington Examiner: “Rep. Gaetz can leave his cosmetic bag at home. In Wyoming men don’t wear make-up.” Could any actual Wyoming voters have gotten the reference? It’s apparently Gaetz ‘boast in an HBO documentary that he does his own makeup for TV hits. Regardless: Liz Cheney’s aide could be sure that Gaetz himself has the reference, and even those who failed to understand that it was intended as a derogatory insult.
It’s hard to know Liz Cheney’s true calculation. Maybe on one end of the spectrum she’s thinking: Asserting myself against Trump could cost my career, but I’d rather lose than give up my dignity by crouching in front of him or apologizing for his outrage. Or maybe she’s more confident: I know my state and my house colleagues. Trump can’t put a glove on me.
Whatever Liz Cheney thinks, reality might be the closest. With all of the hundreds of decisions a politician makes in a year, most subsequent careers are defined by being right or wrong on a small handful of big questions. In these cases, the smart long-term position is often very different from the short-term “safe” one. Many politicians who played it safe and voted against civil rights in the 1960s spent the rest of their careers trying to restore their reputations. Hillary Clinton’s authorization for the Iraq war had her in the democratic mainstream in 2002. Barack Obama’s opposition helped him take over the presidency just six years later.
If the GOP is in the middle of a Trump re-evaluation – not yet obvious, but ultimately practically inevitable – Liz Cheney will look more impressive, and indeed more impressive, because she has now turned against most of her party. Gaetz ‘harassment could later turn out to be a benefit in kind.
In his 2008 interview with Raddatz, Dick Cheney defended his stubbornness with a reference to Abraham Lincoln. Remember how different the story would have been if he had “paid attention to polls” during the Civil War. This is likely a misinterpretation by Lincoln, who was very much set to change politics and far from changing his thinking, he once said: “I claim I have no controlled events but clearly admit that I am Controlled events. ”
The bigger point, however, is that it ultimately comes down to whether you are judged correct in the story about the main question, rather than zigzagging along the way to find an answer. Twelve years later, neither experts nor public opinion on Iraq’s merits has moved much in the direction of Dick Cheney. Liz Cheney’s willingness to hold her own against Trump is likely a more promising historical bet.