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Why Liz Cheney Flamed Out

Her inept campaign seems like a surprise. Until you look at her background.

Marc Piscotti/Getty Images News/Getty Images

When Liz Cheney moved to Wyoming, in 2012, her path to the Senate seemed clear enough. Cheney had a famous name, a high-profile media presence, an impressive CV, and plenty of money. The incumbent, a backbencher named Mike Enzi, was expected to retire. Most political pros would have had an easy time gaming out the next few moves: First, meet Enzi to divine his intentions. Make sure to kiss the ring. Maybe offer a nudge while you do so. Then sit back and let him to do the right thing. When it’s done, offer some gracious praise on the occasion of his retirement. And then await a coronation.

It’s a good bet that’s how Dick Cheney, a famously effective back-room operator, would have handled it. His cable-bred daughter, though, was not content to quietly make Enzi an offer he couldn’t refuse: She simply called him up and informed him she was moving toward running against him. Not for the last time in the campaign, the shock and awe approach backfired. “I think Enzi would have dropped out if she hadn’t announced so early,” one Enzi donor says. “But Enzi did not want to be seen as being shoved out.”

Monday, it was Cheney who left the race, citing family reasons. (An insider describes the issue as something non-life threatening involving one of her daughters.) But there were political considerations, too. Cheney was trailing badly in early polls and having trouble finding a Washington firm to set up a super PAC. Which all added to the aborted campaign’s central mystery: Why did this well-prepared, well-connected, well-known political figure put on such an amateurish performance when she finally ran for office on her own?

Cheney’s campaign was marked by a Palinesque series of news stories involving ham-handed politics and small-time personal dramas: There was the kerfuffle over whether her dad was an old fly-fishing buddy of Enzi. (The senator says yes, the former veep says not.) There was the time her mom told former Senator Alan Simpson to shut up when he announced his support for Enzi. (She was incensed that he’d stiff someone who’d campaigned for him as a preteen.) There was a $220 fine for in-state residential claims on her fishing license application. (Cheney hadn’t lived in Wyoming long enough to avoid the out-of-towner fee.) And, when that was reported in the local press, there was a controversy over whether she had wished death on the state’s well-loved small-town papers. (She said she was only talking about the liberal national media.)

There was also a much more serious break between Cheney and her sister over gay marriage. Candidate Cheney’s position was that states should decide for themselves. But she also said that she believes marriage is only between a man and a woman. That drew Facebook rebukes from Mary Cheney, who has two children with her wife. The whole tableau, transpiring on social media, had a touch of Jerry Springer about it.

You might say this pattern of cable-style bombast and public embarrassment is at odds with the taciturn Cheney brand. Pull back the camera a bit, though, and it starts to look less strange. “The Cheney women are very protective of, as we called him, The Man. That’s what we called him inside the system, The Man, capitalized,” says Kevin Kellems, Dick Cheney’s communications director during his vice presidential years. “You protect The Man at all costs. And two, if the enemy takes a shot at you, you never, ever, ever admit any level of accuracy on their part. You always, always refute it. It is the centerpiece of their DNA.” It’s a tendency that blossomed in the fiery days after 9/11, and grew strong still as Dick Cheney’s reputation collapsed with the Bush administration. “Give no ground was the operating principle of the Cheney operation. Give no ground, ever.”

In prosecuting this principle, Cheney doesn’t primarily trade in the insider tactics associated with her dad. Rather, she takes after her mom, the academic-turned-culture warrior who was a polarizing Clinton-era cable denizen in her own right. “People that are mad at her are mad because they think this is all about ambition and she's more like her mother than her father,” says the Enzi donor.

With a major exception: Lynne, who ran the National Endowment for the Humanities back when Dick was a mere congressman, has her own professional identity. Liz, despite her own personal interests, has spent much of her career in the Dick Cheney business. In 1978, when former White House chief of staff Dick Cheney briefly relocated to Wyoming to run for Congress, 12-year-old Liz campaigned with him. (At one stump speech, preteen Liz shot back at a pair of hostile questioners who wanted to know why her dad was so eager to move back to Washington; she remembers the incident as the first time she truly put on the Cheney jersey.) In 1989, when former Representative Dick Cheney became secretary of defense, recent college graduate Liz joined the administration, too. When former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney ran for vice president, newly minted lawyer Liz followed her dad into the campaign and onto the public payroll. And when former Vice President Dick Cheney’s legacy fell into disfavor under Barack Obama, Liz, now a 47-year-old mother of five, became one of the new president’s most vociferous critics.

In its way, the give-no-ground approach worked when it came to defending Dick Cheney: After all, a flack isn’t supposed to acknowledge differing views. Once Liz was out to become The Man, though, it proved a serious liability. For a mainstay of the Bush-Cheney GOP, navigating Obama-era Republican politics required reinvention. Liz’s slashing style made it impossible to do any of that gracefully. Aiming to displace the congenial Enzi by displaying unrivaled disdain for the president, she was erratic about just which direction the criticisms should come from. In standard neocon form, Cable Cheney had demanded Obama launch military intervention in Syria. Running as a 2014 populist, Candidate Cheney opposed authorizing strikes there. Cable Cheney praised NSA spying to Sean Hannity in June. Candidate Cheney criticized it to the Casper Star-Tribune months later.

Likewise, Cheney the tea partier vowed to be zealous about spending, explaining how ideologues in the bureaucracy protect discredited pet projects. But in the Bush years, she had overseen a textbook example of pricy idealism: the $400 million, largely unsuccessful, effort to promote middle eastern democracy. In fact, that’s a rare case where Cheney acknowledges having learned something from a mistake. What’d she learn? That her dad, who’d been skeptical of such efforts, may have been right.

Candidate Cheney was at her most awkward, though, as she sought to distance herself from the city that defined her. At campaign events last fall, she talked up her Wyoming roots and dressed in boots. But when I chatted with her at one stop, her jeans were so new that her hands were stained blue from touching them. And a candidate more savvy about the carpetbagger charge might have moved somewhere other than Jackson Hole, which most state residents view as the place where interlopers from Hollywood buy vacation houses. Like, say, Cheney’s 3,472 square foot, four-bed, four-bath house, listed at $1.9 million. Likewise, while she railed against the Beltway establishment, she didn’t much mention that her husband is a D.C. power lawyer by way of his own Bush administration stints, or that their McLean home is a seven-bedroom, seven-bath, $2 million spread. (When Cheney was growing up, the revolving door was far less lucrative: Her family owned a place in Casper where she had to catch flooding water with pots and pans when a visiting Gerald Ford failed to secure the upstairs shower curtain; their Virginia house was “a nice tidy little house like we all had back then,” according to a high school friend.)

Cheney’s remarks on gay marriage were even more jarring. Though not technically inconsistent with her 2009 assertion that “freedom means freedom for everybody and this is an issue that states have to decide for themselves,” the new emphasis on her personal opposition added a dollop of family betrayal to the too-abrupt reinvention. Cheney’s parents, who support gay marriage, rallied around her when the spat went public: Give no ground, as always.

One evening this fall, Cheney told me an anecdote about Tom Lantos, a liberal House Democrat: “He said to me, sitting in his office, he said, ‘Don't ever forget: The dogs bark and the caravan moves on,’” Cheney said. “It's like, you know, they're going to yell and scream at you, but it's partly tactical on their part.” And there’s the essence of Cheneyism. Criticism, in her mind, is not something that merits self-examination. Rather, it’s a weapon, fit only for one thing: counter assault. Cheney’s campaign-trail mishaps were not just the accidents of a first-timer. They were the inevitable byproduct of her basic approach to political combat.

Within hours of Cheney’s announcement, there were signals that her submission to the Wyoming Way—pay your dues, respect your elders—had begun to pay off. Simpson, who remains a powerful icon in the Cowboy State, was full of beneficence, telling me Cheney was basically part of his family and that she had a very bright political future in the state. But she will have to do something that hasn’t come naturally to her: wait a few years.

Jon Ward is a reporter at The Huffington Post, where this piece also appears. The piece was produced as part of a partnership with The New Republic. 

Correction: This piece originally said Mary Cheney had two daughters. She has a son and a daughter.