Liz Cheney Builds a Republican Politburo

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Does Liz Cheney want to kill the Republican Party or just Republican Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming? The GOP is still reeling from intra-party attacks that left two respected Republican senators, Richard Lugar of Indiana and Bob Bennett of Utah, political road kill. In each case, the incumbent was deposed by an insurgent who promised to be more conservative, more pure and more thoroughly, irrevocably, unreasonably uncompromising.

Now along comes Cheney, the most high-profile carpetbagger since Hillary Clinton moved to New York in advance of her 2000 run for Senate. Having apparently found her home state of Virginia unreceptive to her jihadist-style politics, Cheney moved with her kids to the Cheney ancestral home of Wyoming. (Her lobbyist husband apparently prefers a big paycheck back East to big skies out West.)

If you're a Republican upstart with a famous name looking to pick off a Senate seat, Wyoming is a land of opportunity. The entire state has fewer residents than the average congressional district. If you're willing to travel long distances -- and, hey, Cheney traveled all the way from Virginia! -- you can practically meet in person every likely primary voter in the state.

Cheney is smart and articulate and an experienced political battler. She can be counted on to run one of two types of campaigns: a negative personal one or a negative ideological one. She no doubt has polling and research data in hand to guide her. If research on Enzi turned up something genuinely unsavory, her task will be easier. If not, she can deploy her talent for what Andrew Sullivan called "gutter McCarthyism" to make the case that Enzi is too soft on communism -- or whatever it is that people with vast ambitions, minimal scruples and a cockeyed, right-wing angle on the world say everyone is too soft on these days.

She announced her candidacy on video. With the sound off, she seems neither vile nor unhinged. But turn up the volume and she promises to be, yes, uncompromising -- leaving it understood that her opponent, who is rated one of the Senate's most conservative members, is really a squish. In a sign that she mixes true ideological fervor with her opportunism, Cheney says that President Barack Obama is intentionally weakening the U.S. abroad. That's the kind of crazy talk most candidates avoid; even voters who think Obama is weak or incompetent or wrongheaded generally don't believe that he's deliberately trying to damage the U.S. But perhaps Cheney's vitriol works with the narrow slice of Wyoming Republicans she'll need to conquer the primary.

If she wins, which she well may, her victory may prove to be another dose of self-administered poison for Republicans. One lesson will be clear: No one is conservative enough to be safe from internal attack.

Nonetheless, many Republicans are already excited by her candidacy. "She represents a slight move to the right," said a Republican senate aide. "But she would be so much more effective" than Enzi.

The cycle by which members of the party are devoured for the crime of being too reasonable is not a recipe for long-term health. Give the process a few years and Republicans will sound like Trotskyites threading doctrinal minutiae through ideological needles. Wyoming's an unlikely place to find the next Nicolai Bukharin. But Cheney may be steely enough to make one out of Enzi.

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