Paul Wellstone was one of the more admirable politicians in modern American history. In 2002, just days before his death in a plane crash, the Minnesota senator risked his reelection prospects to oppose the Bush’s administration’s plan to go to war in Iraq. In a speech on the Senate floor, he warned of the severe costs, in lives and money, that a reckless unilateral action against Iraq could bring. If there had been more politicians like Paul Wellstone, the U.S. would have avoided the murderous calamity of the Iraq war, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, thousands of dead American troops, countless more wounded and traumatized, and the rise of ISIS.
In a new blog post, leading Democratic commentator Robert Reich, who served as Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration, argues that in our own time, one politician embodies the same honorable principles displayed by Wellstone: Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney. Reich says:
“In her courage and integrity, Cheney—although conservative—reminds me of Senator Paul Wellstone, one of the most progressive politicians I’ve ever known. They also have in common a love of democracy. … Liz Cheney’s courage and integrity are closer to Paul Wellstone’s than to almost any current politician I can think of.”
Reich admires Cheney so much that he concludes: “All of America needs her to run for president in the Republican primaries for the 2024 election.” He calls the “de facto leader of the forces supporting democracy,” a “a breath of fresh air for the Republican party,” and suggests she could unify the country. He even goes so far as to draw a little doodle of Liz Cheney standing next to the late Paul Wellstone in front of an American flag:
I have to be blunt: seeing this nauseated me, and then it made me very, very angry. That’s because Liz Cheney is a hardcore reactionary who staunchly supported the atrocity that Paul Wellstone risked his career to oppose. She is, in fact, precisely the opposite of Paul Wellstone. She is a neoconservative who staunchly supports some of the United States’ worst policies. Her greatest hits include:
- Cheney threw her gay sister under the bus in an attempt to get elected to the Senate, switching from not opposing same-sex marriage to opposing it when it was politically convenient
- Cheney attacked Barack Obama for being insufficiently militaristic and supposedly wanting to “weaken the United States”
- As Maureen Dowd notes, Cheney “cheered on her dad as he spread fear, propaganda and warped intelligence. From her patronage perch in the State Department during the Bush-Cheney years, she bolstered her father’s trumped-up case for an invasion of Iraq. Even after no W.M.D.s were found, she continued to believe the invasion was the right thing to do.”
- Cheney fought the construction of the Park 51 Islamic center in Lower Manhattan, arguing that it would be a “victory for terrorists.”
- Cheney appeared to defend birther conspiracies about Barack Obama, saying they arose because “people are uncomfortable with having for the first time ever, I think, a president who seems so reluctant to defend the nation overseas.”
- Cheney supported Donald Trump’s positions 93 percent of the time in Congress
- Cheney voted against the American Rescue Plan
- Cheney portrayed lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees as terrorist sympathizers
- Cheney said it was “libelous” to call waterboarding “torture” even though it very obviously is
- Cheney supported Donald Trump’s reelection campaign in 2020 even though he was arguably the worst criminal in human history
One has to ask, then: has Robert Reich lost his mind? Who could possibly think of Liz Cheney as a person of honor and decency? This is only possible if you pick a single issue and ignore absolutely everything else. But if Liz Cheney were to run for president, she would be running on everything else. The consequences of her political success would be absolutely ghastly.
What’s galling here is that Reich portrays Cheney’s substantive policies as things he merely “disagrees” with, treating them as if they are unimportant. I have written previously about how describing one’s self as having mere “disagreement” with right-wing policies has the effect of making those policies seem much less bad than they really are. I don’t have a mere disagreement with those who launched and defended the Iraq War. I think they are criminals who ought to be punished precisely as harshly as Donald Trump, because I view mass murder as a serious offense. Importantly, Reich’s article does not mention Cheney’s stance on Iraq, probably because this would make it clearer that it’s an insult to Wellstone’s legacy to compare her with him.
I actually somewhat like Robert Reich. His book Locked in the Cabinet is an amusing look at the Executive Branch from the inside, showing the frustrations of a pro-labor liberal in the Clintonian neoliberal administration.1 His book Saving Capitalism, despite the awful title (Reich believes saving capitalism is desirable), contains a very useful explanation of how the “free” market is actually built out of government policies. Reich was a useful mainstream voice in defense of Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020, and he grasps the need for the Democratic Party to fundamentally change.
That makes it all the more disturbing to see Reich praising Liz Cheney. Reich is impressed by Cheney’s willingness to take on Donald Trump over Trump’s attempt to stay in office despite having lost the 2020 election. But in saying that this reveals her to be a person of principle and integrity, Reich is allowing the bar for these terms to be made so low that believing the results of elections should be honored makes you principled enough to belong next to Paul Wellstone in the pantheon of true patriots.
There is something very dangerous about heaping effusive praise on horrible Republicans, and downplaying their crimes and portraying them as less extreme than they really are. It makes it so that the American public might wonder whether there’s anything wrong with electing Republicans. Nothing in Reich’s piece even hints at the scale of the threat to the world that a Liz Cheney presidency would pose.
Reich is not the only one to treat Republicans who oppose Donald Trump as American heroes. A recent piece in The Atlantic is so absurd that one assumes it must have been made bad on purpose solely to make people click on it and argue. It is entitled “Mike Pence Is an American Hero,” with the subheadline “Democrats should honor the Republican who’s trying to end Trumpism.” The author, Jonathan Last, writes:
“Congress can name a building in [Pence’s] honor. The House and Senate could propose nonpartisan resolutions recognizing Pence for his service to democracy. And then Joe Biden could give Pence the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Because while Pence may not be the hero you or I might have wanted, he was the hero America needed.“
The fact that Pence is a homophobic theocrat whose ideal America would outlaw same-sex marriage is immaterial. Pence’s America would see birthright citizenship stripped away and fossil fuel use escalated until it destroys us. But for taking the radical stance that America should not have an outright coup d’etat, Pence can have all these minor flaws set aside.
It is concerning how many Democrats have softened their stance on radical right-wing Republicans when those Republicans have been opposed to Trump. Dick Cheney himself, inarguably a war criminal, was embraced by House Democrats because he found the Jan. 6 riot distasteful. Many Democrats have softened their opinion on George W. Bush.
But this is worrying amnesia. The Bush presidency was a nightmare. Bush lied us into a catastrophic illegal war, tortured and indefinitely detained people, and created a toxic “with us or against us” atmosphere in the country that caused reasonable dissent to be treated as tantamount to treason. He and Cheney deserve to be behind bars. Democrats must not forget this. Bush was just as bad as Trump, and Trump was not some aberrant departure from ordinary Republican politics. Rather, he was just a particularly vulgar embodiment of it. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush should not be looked back at with any nostalgia, and we must not think that Liz Cheney and Mike Pence pose less of a threat to the country than Trump. In fact, they could be worse, because they have the same extreme reactionary political beliefs, but their veneer of respectability means Democrats have a hard time opposing them with sufficient vehemence. I fear the return of Donald Trump, but perhaps my greater fear is that when Trump himself disappears, many who fought against him will be insufficiently opposed to a more effective American fascist.