Regardless of how it finally plays out, this outbreak of Cheney sibling verbal duelling is taking place amidst a broader change in American attitudes towards same-sex marriage. And given the way it plays against the backdrop of social change on the question, it will also make a great American made-for-television docu-drama, once it has run its course.
Dick Cheney, the head of the family, was vice president under George W Bush from 2001-09. He held high-level positions under several previous Republican presidents including White House Chief of Staff and Defense Secretary; was Wyoming’s lone congressman for a decade; and was also CEO of the giant construction company, Haliburton. Throughout, he burnished his reputation as the Republican Party’s go-to consigliere for the hard ones.
While vice president, Cheney was a key figure supporting George W Bush in his invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, gaining a reputation as the most powerful vice president in American history. His critics taunted him by nicknaming him the “Star Wars” uber-villain, Darth Vader; and some detractors even hinted darkly that his late-in-life heart transplant had done nothing to enhance the warmth of an icy soul. In his second term as vice president he even managed to shoot a long-time friend in the face with birdshot during a hunting trip.
Meanwhile, his wife, Lynne, was formerly the Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities (a federal government grant-giving agency supporting cultural programs throughout the nation). Lynne Cheney was a long-time force during Republican years in Washington for her often-stinging criticism of what she saw as dangerous liberal ideas in social policy, as well as in the arts and letters.
But, along the way, Dick Cheney also broke with Republican Party orthodoxy on gay-marriage. He publicly came out in support of it, especially as one of his daughters, Mary Cheney, is now in a same-sex marriage.
All of this has now helped to set the table for a rather unlikely scene that has emerged since his other daughter, Liz, has chosen to challenge popular veteran Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi for the senatorial nomination in the Wyoming Republican primary, early next year. Winning that primary is virtually tantamount to gaining an electoral victory in Wyoming, one of the reddest red states in the nation.
In recent polls carried out by Republican Party-leaning groups, Liz Cheney remains significantly behind Senator Enzi in support but it is early still and many voters have probably not yet made a serious study of the choice. Enzi is very popular in Wyoming and Liz Cheney, as a long-time resident of Northern Virginia, has only recently established residence in Wyoming, giving rise to muttering that in her campaign she is something of a “carpet-bagger”, a term of ridicule for candidates who shop for a district to run for office from.
The so far low probability Liz Cheney stands to win the Senate seat would, in other circumstances most likely have consigned the contest to being a small back pages story, right next to reports on bond issues in local town council meetings, save for one thing. Liz Cheney has suddenly come out guns blazing against gay marriage, even as there have been political ads by a pro-Enzi group that seems to have taken some creative license over Cheney pere’s attitudes towards gay marriage, casting a shadow on Liz Cheney’s bona fides on the issue.
Just incidentally, perhaps, Enzi has been rated the sixth-most conservative senator in the country. And Enzi for Wyoming (the candidate’s campaign organization) spokeswoman Kristin Walker told the media in the midst of all of this, “Mike remains as committed as always to doing his job well – fighting to stop Obamacare and the war on coal and working to keep the federal government out of the lives of Wyoming citizens.”
And all of this has been going on while Liz has also been insisting she and her sister Mary (and Mary’s partner) have a good relationship personally even as she, Liz, is totally opposed to such unions. The Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, commenting on this snarl, said, “A feud between the former vice president’s daughters emerged into public view over the weekend when Liz Cheney, who is trying to win a Senate seat from Wyoming by pandering to the far-right Republican base, went on Fox News Sunday and declared her opposition to gay marriage.”
Quoting the increasingly sharp sparing words of the protagonists, the columnist noted Liz had said on TV that while the question of same-sex marriage should be left up to the fifty states, she had also added, pointedly, “I do believe in the traditional definition of marriage.” In response to that statement, Mary Cheney then fired back via Facebook, “Liz, this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree — you’re just wrong — and on the wrong side of history.”
Then, Mary’s partner, Heather Poe, told her FB friends, “I was watching my sister-in-law on Fox News Sunday (yes Liz, in 15 states and the District of Columbia you are my sister-in-law) and was very disappointed to hear her say ‘I do believe in the traditional definition of marriage.’ Liz has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared holidays with our children, and when Mary and I got married in 2012 — she didn’t hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us. To have her now say she doesn’t support our right to marry is offensive to say the least.”
All of this skirmishing between would-be candidates Enzi and Cheney and among the Cheney extended family is taking place even as American attitudes (and the nation’s actual legal circumstances) towards same-sex marriage are en route to a major phase shift. Nearly a third of American states – including really big ones like California – now permit same-sex marriages; and the Supreme Court has made several rulings undermining federal laws discriminatory to same-sex marriages in terms of federal benefits for partners of government employees (although basic marriage laws generally still remain a matter reserved for the states by the Constitution). And most recently, the newly re-elected New Jersey Governor, Republican Chris Christie (a near-certainty as a candidate for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2016), decided not to oppose same-sex marriage in his state, just before Election Day earlier this month.
Meanwhile, survey data collected by non-partisan polling organizations shows national attitudes are changing dramatically as well. Even among Republicans, The Washington Post reported, “Public surveys show that GOP attitudes about same-sex marriage are changing, albeit at a much slower pace than those of the overall population. In a March Washington Post-ABC News poll, 34 percent of Republicans said they believed it should be legal for gay and lesbian couples to marry, up from 22 percent in 2009. Among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents younger than 50, the support for gay marriage was much higher, with 52 percent backing it.”
Overall, increasing percentages support it, especially so among younger citizens. Those opposed are increasingly concentrated in the shrinking cohort of older, more conservative, Republican Party supporters in the South and Western/Rocky Mountain states – just like Wyoming. As a national issue, it would seem to be a longer-term loser of an issue to be opposed to same-sex marriage as a key part of a presidential bid.
A second problem for Republicans is that the split in the party between its libertarian and social conservative wings largely mirrors a split on same-sex marriage. Many libertarians such as those supportive of Ron Paul or his spiritual (and political) successors and who say they dislike government interference with individual personal behaviour have tended to – uncomfortably, perhaps – be neutral on or supportive of same-sex marriage as a personal, private matter.
That, however, still stands in substantial contrast with the views of social values conservatives such as those who supported Rick Santorum in the 2012 presidential primaries. (Big business establishment Republican moderates, meanwhile, seem to be sliding towards the larger national consensus position.) The problem for the party is going to be in bringing these sharply different positions into alignment for upcoming elections; especially since social values conservatives have a history of approaching such social values positions as the primary axis upon which to decide on how to vote for or against a candidate.
Or, as Republican strategist Liz Mair, a member of the board of Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry, told reporters the other day, “When you look at the question of same-sex marriage, there is a consistent trend that more and more people are becoming supportive of it. That does tell you something about where the future of the issue is going and where candidates would be best positioned to be electorally on it.”
Except that it still remains a deeply debated issue among Republican leaders. For example, Republican political activist Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (himself a sturdy social values candidate) cautioned, “This is a huge issue for Republican primary voters, and it will carry over to the general election. Jobs and economy and spending are still the most important, but a candidate’s position on social issues such as life and marriage sends an extremely strong message about their values. That’s why taking the wrong side could be fatal.” And David Lane, a California-based Christian activist adds, “the Republican Party will collapse if they bring homosexual marriage into the party.”
All of this might almost be enough to make one have a bit of sympathy for Dick Cheney. As Robinson went on to comment, “It’s enough to make you feel sorry — almost — for family patriarch Dick Cheney. I say almost because he has been uncritically supportive of Liz Cheney’s campaign, at least publicly. He and Lynne Cheney said in a statement Monday that ‘Liz’s many kindnesses shouldn’t be used to distort her position.’ But the former vice president at least has had the decency to support his lesbian daughter and her family — and to wish her the same domestic happiness and stability his non-lesbian daughter enjoys.”
Amazingly, and remarkably, the Cheney family’s internal fissure over same-sex marriage becomes an echo of the larger debate within American society over that question. Of course being a fly on the wall at the Cheney’s Christmas lunch would serve as a real opportunity to contemplate how Americans are coming to grips with the social and political changes that come along, hand-in-hand, with the attitude shifts over same-sex marriage. And this will be true, even if Liz Cheney is utterly defeated by Senator Mike Enzi, in part through his efforts to paint her as insufficiently supportive of an amendment to the US Constitution on behalf of “traditional marriage”. DM
Photo: U.S. Vice president Dick Cheney (L) takes the oath for his second term in office at inaugural ceremonies in Washington D.C. on January 20, 2005. Cheney’s daughters Mary (2nd L) and Liz (2nd R) watched. REUTERS/Jason Reed PM
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