November, 19th 2013

Liz Cheney, Mary Cheney and family loyalty

– Liz Mair

Matt Lewis has an interesting post up about the Liz Cheney-Mary Cheney feud over Liz Cheney's stance on legal recognition of same-sex marriages. Obviously, Liz's remarks have garnered a lot of attention over the last 48 hours (I've opined on them from several different standpoints during that time), but Matt dives into the aspect of the controversy that is perhaps the hardest to discuss because it concerns the emotional, as opposed to the philosophical or the practical, and takes a perspective with which I think a lot of people will both empathize and find tremendous discomfort: That Mary Cheney probably should have shut her trap, maintained some loyalty to her sister, and waited for Liz to "evolve" if she ever made it to the Senate.

Let's stipulate two things from the get-go here.

First, almost certainly Liz Cheney is fibbing about her stance on same-sex marriage, given comments she has made previously and the impression she and folks close to her have obviously allowed to persist not merely out in the public, but frankly in private, amongst close family members. She is almost certainly doing it for political purposes. It is exceedingly unlikely to do anything for her, politically, because a) same-sex marriage is not a particularly motivating issue in the way that say abortion or Obamacare or guns or even taxes are in Republican primaries and b) pretty much no one believes her stance is what she said it was, on Sunday.

Second, it's hard to see how Mary Cheney and her wife would not be at least a little hurt by what was said, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that it appears no heads up was given as to the stance Liz would be very publicly taking on this issue (which doesn't seem to conform to the stance Mary and her wife thought Liz held). It's hard to imagine them not wanting to vent at least a little bit, and let's not forget, Mary is a Cheney-- and neither her Dad nor her sister are exactly known for biting their tongues or playing nice with people who oppose their positions on key issues. I've been told by people who have worked with Dick Cheney that a challenge in handling his communications is that he simply does not care what people think of him. I daresay Mary may have a bit of her Dad in her that way. And I think Liz probably does, too.

Yet despite this, the whole episode feels uncomfortable, even to those of us who agree with Mary Cheney on the policy issue at stake here and empathize with her need to publicly vent and push back on Liz. The spectacle of two sisters, largely perceived to be quite close, fighting is both sad and unnerving, especially in the context of politics, where there's a tendency to highly prioritize the "virtue" of loyalty.

I put "virtue" in quotation marks because I personally believe that in politics, loyalty is most often a "virtue" invoked by someone who has seriously screwed over another person and wants them to not abandon them or raise hell about it or just generally be peeved or disgruntled over a long term. Sometimes that's not the case, but frequently it is, and we can see this on every level from intra-staff relations to the way that different parts of the party-- moderates, conservatives and libertarians, for example-- interact with each other routinely when it comes to primary fights, voting patterns and volunteer efforts. Nonetheless, regardless of the merits of loyalty, it's one of those things we're told is important in politics (as Philip Seymour Hoffman's character says in Ides of March, "There's only one thing I value and that's loyalty. And without it, you're nothing").

But the Cheney-on-Cheney fight is actually useful for us to watch play out because I think it's forcing a lot of people to think about how much loyalty really matters-- and if it does, loyalty to what or whom. And as you might suspect from what I've said above, my view-- probably like Mary's at this point-- is that loyalty is highly overrated, and is really only owed where it is earned. And I'm not sure you earn something merely by having the same parents as the person who ostensibly owes you something.

This is something I've spent a lot of time thinking about before. As some people reading this post will know, periodically, I get asked if I would consider running for public office (usually Congress). At one time, I thought I might. Subsequently, I have changed my mind on that. One thing I've known throughout, and that I think of every time someone asks, is that were I to run, I'm quite sure that I would not have the electoral or financial support of my family (though unlike Josh Mandel's family, I also would not likely have them running paid ads against me-- we're Scottish; we're too cheap for that). And while that may make a lot of you think "wow, Liz's family are a bunch of assholes," actually, with few exceptions, no, they're not, and actually, I'm OK with the concept of families not standing steadfastly by their campaigning relative, no matter what that person is running on or how deeply they may disagree with it personally.

I don't talk much about my family publicly, and I'm not going to go in depth here, but suffice to say, I'm pretty sure that if asked, my mother would tell a reporter that she thinks I'm way too right-wing on entitlement reform. My sister and I definitely don't agree about unions, and it wouldn't hugely surprise me if she noted that on Facebook were I running and making comments she interpreted as disparaging of them. My brother is probably the politically closest to me, but he and I certainly disagree on health care policy, and he's a pretty active Facebook user and generally rather vocal about his political opinions. I'm not actually sure that if I ran for Congress, I would get their votes (and I seriously doubt I'd get their money). Of course, they also do not have the public profile that Mary Cheney has, nor do they likely have the same number of Facebook friends, or the same number of reporters among them, and I guess that's convenient for me.

The same could be said of my friends, more of whom are liberal than not (contrary to what certain friends, ahem Mike, naturally think). I'm sure they could all get on board with the idea that if I were to run, it would be because I'd be trying in my own way to make the United States a better country. But I'm pretty sure some of them would view it as a misguided way.

I'm OK with that.

I don't think your family or friends have to uniformly support you, agree with you, or at least stay silent about important issues to them just because you disagree, or even because one believes the other is entirely wrong. Obviously, it's best to avoid surprises where policy stances are going to become evident that perhaps might not have been before-- this avoids hurt feelings to the maximum degree and also optimally ensures that any ensuing back-and-forth falls more into the category of legitimate airing of differences on an issue rather than public sniping. But frankly, on any important policy issue, emotionally-charged debate is something that a) a prospective public official had better be prepared for, because a lot more of it will happen if elected to serve and b) can be enlightening, and is rather at the core of democracy and a free society (whereas "loyalty" is not).

Would it be nicer if the debate that now exists between Liz Cheney and her sister had been more sanitized and less personal, like the debates we typically see about same-sex marriage in presidential debates? Perhaps. But I'm not sure that's really possible, nor is it necessarily desirable. On both sides of this issue, people have strong feelings and deeply personal reasons for feeling the way they do that no matter how much they may be cloaked in philosophical argumentation I think in some way, to some degree, always come down to personal experiences, gut instincts and the like. 

The rest of the country is involved in this particular debate, and it will probably come up at thousands of dinner tables this Thanksgiving (not least due to Liz and Mary's own comments). The only real reason I think the Cheneys should be different is that it seems implausible that Liz's views on this matter are what she said they were this weekend-- which, if I'm right on that, means there isn't really a debate or a disagreement, just some conjured-up political theater. [intro]