Liz Cheney and the Dick Morris paradox
Must Republican's promote Trump's Big Lie to be elected? Must Democrats "move to the center?
Tomorrow, Wyoming Republicans will determine the fate of Representative Liz Cheney — whom Trump has targeted for revenge ever since she criticized him for inciting the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Six days after that attack — when no other Republican in the House or Senate was willing to rebuke Trump — she said on the House floor: “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 very next day, on January 13, Cheney joined nine other House Republicans and 222 Democrats in voting to impeach Trump. So far, three of these ten principled Republican lawmakers have lost their primaries. Two have won them. The remaining four are retiring.
As vice-chair of the House of Representatives’ January 6 committee investigating the causes of that attack, Cheney has ceaselessly and tirelessly helped lay out the case against Trump during eight public hearings held in June and July, with more to come.
In response, Trump has done everything possible to end Cheney’s career. He made sure House Republicans revoked her status as the third-highest-ranking leader of the Republican caucus and that Wyoming Republicans censured her.
Her life has been threatened and she has a security detail. But she has not wavered.
Trump also selected Cheney’s opponent in the Republican primary, Harriet Hageman — who has rallied behind Trump and amplified his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Hageman has a commanding double-digit lead over Cheney. (According to some reports, Cheney has been reluctant even to venture into Wyoming to campaign, due to death threats.)
If Liz Cheney loses her House seat, as seems likely, I hope she doesn’t disappear from public life. Although her views on countless substantive issues are the opposite of mine, I salute her. She has displayed more courage and integrity than almost any other member of her party — indeed, given the pressure she was under, perhaps more than any lawmaker now alive.
The role Cheney has played raises larger issues about the meaning of representative democracy. Is it the responsibility of elected officials to represent the views of their constituents or their own principles? How far should they compromise their principles to get and retain power?
These questions aren’t limited to Republicans. As the midterms draw closer, some Democratic operatives and pundits argue that Biden and the Democrats must move to the “center” in order to win. But where is the center? Halfway between democracy and fascism? Midpoint between social justice and oligarchy? And if Democrats have to go either of these places in order to win, what’s the point of winning?
A personal note. In 2002, I ran for the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts — the first time I’d run for elected office. (I don’t remember ever sleeping. I gained weight because I went to too many goddamn receptions and ate too many meatballs, pretzels, crackers and cheese. I talked so much I had to binge on throat lozenges. I smiled so much my cheeks ached. I got carsick from bouncing around Massachusetts in a cheap camper whose air conditioning continuously went out and whose springs were shot. I had to kiss the derrieres of too many rich liberals in order to finance the campaign.)
During my campaign I was asked lots of questions. Should Cardinal Bernard Law resign over allegations that he allowed priests to molest children? I said yes. My campaign manager had a fit. “This is a Catholic state. You’re Jewish. You can’t just say that!”
What would I do about Massachusetts’s yawning budget deficit? My answer: Raise capital gains taxes. My campaign manager was apoplectic. “People hate tax increases. The rich especially hate capital gains tax increases!”
Did I support gay marriage? I said yes. My campaign manager went ballistic. “You might as well end the campaign right here. You’ve just lost!”
On these and many other issues throughout the interminable nine months of that campaign, I gave my unfiltered views. As I repeatedly told my campaign manager, “If I don’t say what I believe, I won’t have any mandate from the public to act on those beliefs once I’m elected.”
His retort: “You keep saying what you believe, you won’t get elected.”
I was not elected. Five other candidates were seeking the nomination. I came in a respectable second. (This robbed me of the opportunity to take on the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, who rocketed into the state with piles of money. Had I won the Democratic nomination, I would have whipped Romney’s assets.)
So, was I wrong to stick to my principles? I call this the Dick Morris paradox.
You’d be forgiven if you didn’t remember: In early 1996, Bill and Hillary Clinton summoned pollster Dick Morris to the White House to make sure Bill would be reelected. Morris’s advice to Clinton was to move to the center (“triangulate”) and say nothing in his re-election campaign except that the economy was terrific and would be even better in the second term.
Whenever I ran into Morris slithering around the West Wing (to this day I think of him as a snake), I suggested he urge Bill to advance some policies for the second term’s agenda — a hike in the minimum wage, universal pre-K, paid family leave, Medicare for all.
Morris’s invariable response: “If Clinton pushes any of these, there won’t be a second term.”
I said there was no point in having a second term without an agenda to do something important in the second term. He argued back that there was no use having an agenda without a second term.
I began calling this the Dick Morris paradox. If the only way to get or keep power is to say nothing to the public about what you believe or intend to achieve, or to mislead the public, what’s the point of having power?
To Morris and most other political operatives, this question makes no sense. Politics is about getting and keeping power — nothing more or less. Principles have nothing to do with it. A candidate’s beliefs and values are beside the point.
Operators like Dick Morris defend themselves by saying politicians have a responsibility to mirror whatever the public wants or believes.
But what if the public has been lied to by a conman who tells them the last election was stolen? What if he has cynically exploited their bigotry, ignorance, or distrust?
Under these circumstances, should candidates merely reflect what the conman has stirred up, as Harriet Hageman has done in Wyoming and other Republican candidates are doing with Trump’s Big Lie elsewhere? Or should candidates risk losing political power (or never gaining it) by standing on their own principles?
The dilemma on the Democrats’ side is not nearly as dangerous for the nation, but it exists nonetheless. Some of today’s Democratic candidates are moving to the so-called “center” because they’ve convinced themselves they must do so in order to gain or hold power, which is better than not having any.
But is gaining or holding power more important than telling the public what one truly believes, and speaking truth?