Liz Cheney has been a godsend for democracy, but she doesn't fit anywhere in US politics

·6 min read

Rep. Liz Cheney sounded like she was giving a farewell address at the history-making public finale of the Jan. 6 committee, but I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of her.

The great mystery now is whether she has a future in American politics.

The departing Wyoming Republican said Monday that former President Donald Trump is "unfit for any office" and should never "serve in any position of authority in our nation again." Her sharp-edged certainty, deployed to save democracy, has been a gift to Democrats, fellow Republican resisters and, above all, America.

But today's GOP is hostile to Cheney precisely because of that mission. And unless working with the opposition has upended her worldview, the Democratic Party won't be a fit, either.

This is a lawmaker who, in her first 15 days in office in 2017, accused then-President Barack Obama of “aiding America’s enemies” and trying to “undermine the constitutional rights of gun owners”; co-sponsored bills to reverse the “devastating impact” of “Obama-era regulations” and force states to recognize concealed-carry gun permits from other states; and voted to repeal the “trainwreck of Obamacare.” As recently as August 2020, Cheney issued a news release headlined, “Socialism has a chokehold on the Democratic Party.”

Jan. 6 committee vs. Trump: A tale of the most obvious charges ever alleged

Signs of a hard line softening?

And yet, amid all that early overheated rhetoric, Cheney co-sponsored "a bipartisan bill" to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list. And at least twice in 2018, she voted yes on overwhelmingly bipartisan bills to reform the criminal justice system and fight the opioid epidemic.

Even apart from Trump and the Capitol attack, however, Cheney's record has been notably more bipartisan this year. She worked with Democrats on bills to expand telehealth and improve U.S. tools to strengthen global democracy. She voted for bipartisan initiatives on gun safety, investment in U.S. semiconductor manufacturing, a binding Puerto Rico statehood referendum and, after reversing her opposition to same-sex marriage last year, the Respect for Marriage Act.

Rep. Liz Cheney , R-Wyo., vice chair of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, on Dec. 19, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Liz Cheney , R-Wyo., vice chair of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, on Dec. 19, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

She hasn't turned into a complete squish. Cheney's willingness to spend money did not extend to the bipartisan infrastructure law President Joe Biden signed last year. She earned a “pants on fire” rating from PolitiFact in April 2021 for asserting that only 6% of the money in an early version was for actual infrastructure. Two months later she called the package “radical.” Before voting against a version the Senate had passed 69-30, Cheney said it contained “too many far-left priorities that would be bad for Wyoming.”

Cheney as protector of elections

So there is that Liz Cheney – and there is the one who declared on ABC News in August that "we've got election deniers that have been nominated for really important positions all across the country. And I'm going to work against those people. I'm going to work to support their opponents."

Cheney kept that promise. She helped defeat election deniers Kari Lake and Mark Finchem, the Arizona GOP candidates for governor and secretary of state. And for the first time in her life, Cheney crossed the aisle to help Democrats. She endorsed Reps. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, and even campaigned with Slotkin. She also endorsed Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who lost his Senate bid.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., campaigns for Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., in Lansing on Nov. 1, 2022.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., campaigns for Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., in Lansing on Nov. 1, 2022.

When Cheney lost her own primary in August, she vowed, “I will do whatever it takes to ensure that Donald Trump is never anywhere near the Oval Office, and I mean it.” The next day she acknowledged she was mulling a presidential campaign. And in October she did not disagree with the suggestion that as an independent candidate, she could stop Trump if he's the 2024 nominee.

An electoral failsafe against Trump

That looks increasingly less likely, but even if someone Trumpish is the Republican standard-bearer, it’s easy to see the outlines of an independent Cheney candidacy and its impact. Conservatives would be split, opening a path for Democrats to unite and win.

And it would be difficult for Cheney to peel them off. For all the admiration she deserves, she is out of sync with the kind of country Democrats want America to be.

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If you are “strongly pro-life” and oppose a national right to abortion, if you’re looking for lower taxes and believe in the old GOP saw that “people know how to spend their money better than the government does,” as Cheney put it in 2018, she’s the one.

But she's a swipe left candidate if you support abortion access, you're done with trickle-down tax cuts for the rich and you want the government to invest in health care, child care, education, housing and paid leave – priorities reflected in Biden's "Build Back Better" agenda. Cheney last year called it a "reckless" wish list and opposed it in a much shrunken form a year later.

Geography is another obstacle for Cheney. She’s done for now and maybe forever in Wyoming, but she still owns a home in Northern Virginia. Could she win the state in a presidential race? Failing that, could she win a Senate seat there? My guess is she's too conservative.

Rep. Liz Cheney after losing the GOP primary, Aug. 16, 2022, Jackson, Wyo.
Rep. Liz Cheney after losing the GOP primary, Aug. 16, 2022, Jackson, Wyo.

Now, people do change. Cheney evolved on LGBTQ rights, and maybe she's having a modest evolution on guns. But will she rethink concealed carry or an assault weapons ban? Will she evolve on “socialism,” health care or abortion? She's been a formidable democracy ally, but personally I wouldn’t make those bets on domestic policy.

That makes me sad, especially when I think of words like these that are destined to live in history: “Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible. There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain."

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., had it right: “I told Liz I can’t wait to going back to disagreeing with her about everything. But right now, we are in a constitutional emergency, and we are all constitutional first responders."

These are politicians in a foxhole. Eventually they will climb out of it and start arguing again. That might not be until Trump and his imitators are well and truly gone from public life. And if they finally fade, both parties will owe a huge debt to Liz Cheney. Again.

Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter and Post.News

More from Jill Lawrence:

If our political and legal systems worked, there wouldn't be a Trump 2024 campaign

The Trump GOP is in ruins and every Jan. 6 committee hearing digs the hole deeper

From Trump 2020 to 'Don't Say Gay,' GOP leaders waste millions of taxpayer dollars

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cheney could stop Trump in 2024, but she has no path to presidency