By Robert Reich
I trust Joe Biden’s steadiness and judgment, and if he runs again, I’ll probably back him in 2024. But today I want to suggest someone who isn’t even a Democrat, and whose positions on many issues I (and I suspect you) strongly disagree with — but who could possibly be the best president of the United States for the perilous time we’re entering.
I’m referring to Liz Cheney.
Before you reject this idea out of hand, please bear with me.
I’ve been in and around American politics for well over a half century. I’ve never seen this nation as bitterly divided as it is now — not during the Civil Rights movement, not during the Vietnam War, not during Watergate. And it looks as if the current division is growing deeper and even more dangerous.
Donald Trump didn’t just attempt a coup. He attempted to push America into a civil war. And he’s still at it — endorsing candidates who will repeat his Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him, encouraging states to change their election laws so Republican lawmakers can disregard the popular vote, and pushing them to install secretaries of state and other election officials who will count votes in ways favorable to Republicans — especially him, should he run for president again in 2024.
In short, Trump wants a civil war centered on himself — on his Big Lie, and on the racist nationalism he fueled to build his political base. Trump’s narcissism is so poisonous that he is committed to splitting the nation over its commitment to him. As president, Trump never understood his responsibility to America as a whole. He felt responsible only to his supporters, whom he called “my people.” Those who didn’t support him were his enemies. Since the 2020 election, he has done everything possible to stoke war between his supporters and his perceived enemies. Clearly, that’s his aim in 2024.
It will be impossible to reunite this nation without a leader who is the exact opposite of Trump — driven not by narcissism but by a passion for the rule of law and the Constitution — someone who has staked everything on opposing Trump’s demagogic authoritarianism, someone with huge stores of courage and integrity.
Since the attack on the Capitol, Liz Cheney has demonstrated more courage and integrity than any other politician in America. Democratic lawmakers have opposed Trump’s Big Lie, to be sure, but most knew they wouldn’t pay a price for their opposition. Cheney knew she would pay a price — and she has.
Six days after the attack on the Capitol — when no other Republican in the House or Senate was willing to rebuke Trump — she said this on the House floor:
Much more will become clear in the coming days and weeks, but what we know now is enough. The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the President. The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.
The following day, on January 13, Cheney joined nine House Republicans and 222 Democrats in voting to impeach Trump. She subsequently agreed to be vice-chairman of the committee investigating the January 6 insurrection.
As a result of these actions, Trump and House G.O.P. leaders have sought to drive Cheney out of the party. House Republicans revoked her status as the third-highest-ranking leader of the Republican caucus. Wyoming Republicans have censured her. Trump and the Republican Party are backing her primary challenger in Wyoming, Harriet Hageman, whose campaign has received huge amounts of funding from rightwing groups. Polling shows Cheney faces an uphill battle to keep her seat.
But she has not wavered.
Last Thursday evening, at the start of the televised hearings of the committee, Cheney laid out the case against Trump, whom, she argued, had thrown the republic into “a moment of maximum danger” not seen before. “The sacred obligation to defend this peaceful transfer of power has been honored by every American president — except one,” she said. She told members of her own party who continued to support Trump’s Big Lie that they were “defending the indefensible” and “there will come a day when President Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
As I said, Cheney is a firm conservative and I have opposed many of her positions. But we are at an inflection point in this nation over a set of principles that transcend any particular positions or policies. If we cannot agree on the sanctity of the Constitution and the rule of law, we are no longer capable of self government.
The real battle in 2024 will not be between Democrats and Republicans. It will be between forces supporting democracy in America and those supporting authoritarianism. Trump is the de facto leader of the forces supporting authoritarianism. Liz Cheney has become the de facto leader of the forces supporting democracy.
I hope she declares herself a candidate for president and runs in the Republican primary against Trump. The G.O.P desperately needs her moral clarity and authority. She would give voice to Republicans who have been voiceless, and allow the Republican Party to redeem itself — to reclaim the status it needs to ever again be a governing party. If she runs, many currently independent voters — who outnumber registered Republicans — could register as Republicans and vote for her, possibly delivering Trump a sharp repudiation in his own party and making it safe for other Republican lawmakers to declare the truth about the 2020 election.
If she loses the Republican primary, she might consider running as an independent. She’d have a chance. She’d likely draw voters away from both major-party candidates, while pulling many voters into the election who typically don’t vote.
Paradoxically, Cheney — although conservative — reminds me of Senator Paul Wellstone, one of the most progressive politicians I’ve ever known. They have in common courage and integrity, and a love of democracy.
The last time I spoke with Paul was soon after he voted against the resolution authorizing war in Iraq, on October 11, 2002. The trauma of 9/11 was still fresh, but Wellstone doubted that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction,” as George W. Bush and his administration claimed. Wellstone worried that America was acting out of anger rather than principle, and that there was no justification for such an invasion.
I agreed with him but was concerned for him. He was up for reelection. It was a tight race. Polls showed that most of his constituents in Minnesota supported the war.
“Don’t worry, Bob,” he said. “If I lose, that’s okay. I was elected to vote my conscience. If my constituents don’t support my conscience, I shouldn’t represent them.”
In the following days, Wellstone explained to Minnesotans why he voted the way he did, and his polls rose. Had he lived, he may well have won reelection. (On October 25, 2002, eleven days before the election, he died in a plane crash on his way to a campaign event near Eveleth, Minnesota. His wife, Sheila, and daughter, Marcia, also died on board.)
Liz Cheney’s courage and integrity are closer to Paul Wellstone’s than to almost any current politician I can think of. All of America needs her to run for president in 2024. Do we need her to win as well?