An Unmistakable Claim to Her Party’s Patriotic and Execptionalist Heritage

Liz Cheney's Reagan Library speech was an unmistakeable act of political appropriation in an appropriate setting and manner.

With the shrewd acquiescence of the Democrats, ranking Republican member Liz Cheney has starred in the televised proceedings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. The event is treated with comparable infamy to December 7th and September 11, as evidenced by the absence in the committee title of the year that it took place. The day after the gentlelady from Wyoming led White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson through two hours of testimony replete with gangster movie tropes, Cheney traveled across the country to deliver a speech to a Republican audience gathered at one of its temples, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles. As part of a lecture series entitled “A Time for Choosing,” she put into a crisis context the revelations of the hearings, the next two national elections, and the fate of the republic. The GOP, she argued, now faced a very big, unequivocal, and unavoidable choice.

Cheney opened with recollections of her world travels keyed to American ideals about elections:

I want to talk about freedom, and what freedom means and the cost of our freedom. ​​I’ve had the opportunity over the course of my career to spend time working in places that are not characterized by democracy, that are not characterized by free government. And I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with people who had to sacrifice an incredible amount for their vote. 

A montage of anecdotes followed: Cheney observing voters in Northern Kenya who defied government troops to cast their ballots; encountering the Russian political reformer Boris Nemtsov, whom Putin had assassinated in 2015, and conversing with the dissident Natan Sharansky; meeting a woman in Warsaw who told her she was afraid people would forget what it was like to live under Soviet domination; and hearing from a Cuban refugee inspired at age 14 to come to America by the speeches of Ronald Reagan, which he heard via Radio Marti with a blanket over his head so others would not know what he was listening to. 

Cheney has given this kind of globetrotting passage before, notably in May 2021 right before she was ousted from the House Republican leadership. It evinced the neocon ideology that belief in American exceptionalism requires standing up to dictators and tyrants everywhere, using force if necessary.

But authoritarianism is something that Americans are accustomed to dealing with abroad. Cheney turned to how the threat to free and fair elections under law had come home. 

At this moment, we are confronting a domestic threat that we have never faced before — and that is a former president who is attempting to unravel the foundations of our constitutional republic. He is aided by Republican leaders and elected officials who made themselves willing hostages to this dangerous and irrational man. Even after all we’ve seen, they’re enabling his lies.

She summarized the story of what Trump has done with the assistance and acquiescence of other Republicans. She distilled its implications in bold Reaganesque terms:

the reality that we face today, as Republicans, as we think about the choice in front of us, we have to choose. Because Republicans cannot both be loyal to Donald Trump and loyal to the constitution.

Reagan made his first national political mark with a 1964 speech entitled “A Time for Choosing.” He gsve it on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. In it he too used an anecdote about a Cuban refugee to remind the audience –the voters– about the dire stakes at hand:

Not too long ago, two friends of mine were talking to a Cuban refugee, a businessman who had escaped from Castro, and in the midst of his story one of my friends turned to the other and said, “We don’t know how lucky we are.” And the Cuban stopped and said, “How lucky you are? I had someplace to escape to.” And in that sentence he told us the entire story. If we lose freedom here, there’s no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth.

Cheney justified her framing of the situation, with its clearly implied choice, in a mother’s desire for her children, her citizenship, and her faith. She also cast it as a choice transcending partisan politics:

One of my Democratic colleagues said to me recently that he looked forward to the day when he and I could disagree again.

She singled out for praise four Democratic members of the Armed Services Committee, veterans all, with whom she serves –all women. Cheney served in the State Department before and while her father was Vice-President, but she is not a veteran. 

Cheney explained the foundational oath of office that every American elected official takes, swearing allegiance to the Constitution. She went back to her children and her mom status, a classic American pedestal for moralizing (e.g. the temperance, abolition, and peace movements). From there she segued into an heroic, gender-based, but non-feminist depiction of the suddenly famous “Miss” Cassidy Hutchinson to close:

for Mother’s Day, this year, my youngest son gave me the most wonderful gift. He gave me a note on which he had written partly, “Mom, every time you leave, I know you’re going to work for America.” It brought me to tears. My older kids said, “Mom, he just wants you out of the house.” I said, “No, no.” Anyway, no.

And I will tell you, it is especially the young women, young women who seem instinctively to understand the peril of this moment for our democracy, and young women who know that it will be up to them to save it….America had the chance to meet one of these young women yesterday, Miss Cassidy Hutchinson. Her superiors, men many years older, a number of them are hiding behind executive privilege, anonymity, and intimidation, but her bravery and her patriotism yesterday were awesome to behold.

Liz Cheney sounded like John McCain as much as Ronald Reagan: high-flown phrases about American ideals, self-deprecating humor, staunch delineations of opponents and allies as well as fateful choices. There was a touch of the Cold Warrior JFK in her speaking persona as well, and she quoted him in the address. 

Unlike those men Cheney is also a lawyer, and it is notable that she did not make an explicit legal case against Trump and his abetters. She cited no statutes as she highlighted the incriminating timeline leading up to the attempted insurrection.

Cheney’s stark articulation of her party’s dilemma puts Ron DeSantis and others angling for the 2024 Republican nomination in a bind. They will indeed have to choose between the rogue president and the Constitution. There can be no fudging and ducking as long as she is around to comment.

Early in the speech Cheney took care to affirm her GOP bona fides on immigration, inflation, and regulation. She did not mention that just the week before she had praised the Supreme Court for its Dobbs ruling that invalidated reproductive choice under Roe. Nor did she say that on the same day of the Court decision (June 24) she was one of fourteen House Republicans to vote for the gun safety bill. Cheney clearly wanted no pretext for commentators to diverge from her main topic.

The Reagan Library audience accorded Cheney standing ovations at the start and end of her address. But in recent polls Cheney trailed her top August 16 primary opponent for the House seat she occupies, Harriet Hageman, by roughly thirty points. Yet her 2022 electoral fate as Wyoming’s House member seems incidental to her national standing. In this speech, she staked a steely claim to her party’s patriotic and exceptionalist heritage. It was an unmistakeable act of political appropriation in an appropriate setting and manner.

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