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20 June

Liz Cheney can be a villainous Republican and an honourable human being at the same time

Her conduct at the 6 January Capitol riot hearings shows people are neither entirely good nor evil.

By Charlotte Kilpatrick

Liz Cheney is no liberal hero. Since assuming the Wyoming congressional seat once held by her father, the former vice-president and occasional stand-in for Darth Vader, Dick Cheney, Liz has maintained a solid conservative voting record. 

That record includes everything from being pro-guns, to warmongering, to voting for Supreme Court justices she knew would limit abortion rights. The conservative action group, Heritage Action has bestowed upon her an 87 per cent session score and says she is in the 89th percentile of the most conservative House Republicans.

This puts her on the bona fide, hardcore right of right-wing Republicans. She supported Donald Trump in both the 2016 and 2020 elections, and she did not vote to impeach him after he tried bribing the Ukrainian president to get dirt on his political opponent’s son. In fact, Liz Cheney voted with President Trump 92.9 per cent of the time. That’s more than anyone with a solid moral compass should ever have voted with him.

Unfortunately, moral compasses are hard to come by in Washington these days. There are 208 House Republicans and only two, Adam Kinzinger and Cheney, have been brave enough to take a stand against their own party and call out Trump for inciting the rabid mob that attempted to overthrow the 2020 US presidential election. Kinzinger has said he will not run for re-election, but Cheney is 30 points down in the Republican primary against a Trump-backed candidate. She is going to lose and she knows it, yet she is pressing ahead with the committee anyway.

There are many detractors who will say that “brave” is not the right description for a woman who voted against welfare protection for working mothers and believes in arming teenagers. And there are those who say that she deserves no cookie from the left for doing the right thing, especially when doing the right thing in this situation is so obvious and so urgent. Surely, we must set the bar for politicians at something higher than honouring their oath of office to protect America from enemies foreign and domestic.

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What is lost in the discussion about Cheney’s bravery and/or treachery, however, is the reality that human beings are often morally complex creatures. We don’t always do the right thing because humans are very good at convincing themselves that everything they do is morally right. For example, in 2002 only one Democratic senator who was up for re-election, the late Paul Wellstone, voted against the invasion of Iraq. The other Democratic senators, especially those with presidential ambitions (Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and John Edwards), sat back and said invading a sovereign country on trumped-up charges of weapons of mass destruction was a good idea. 

This is to say that Cheney can be a villainous Republican and an honourable human being at the same time. The two things are not mutually exclusive, and the moment the left adopts a binary notion that all humans beings are either entirely good or entirely evil is the moment the movement becomes as single-minded as those whose policies it opposes. There is room for criticising Cheney on her voting record, and that should be done and it should be done often. But there is also room to say that Cheney’s courage to do the right thing is admirable. It does not make her admirable, it makes this specific action admirable. 

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Last February, the GOP censored Cheney along with Kinzinger in a resolution that disowned her from the Republican Party. In her opening address for the House select committee on the 6 January Capitol riots, she warned her fellow conservatives: “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 dishonour will remain.”

If the 6 January committee succeeds in its task to convince the US population that democracy means something in America, then perhaps Cheney’s words will go down as being on the right side of history. If the committee fails to make its case, there’s a risk there won’t be much left to vote for anyway.

[See also: What the US Capitol riot hearings teach us about the slow decay of political norms]