“It’s a slip, not a fall,” Abraham Lincoln said after his loss in his legendary 1858 Illinois Senate contest against Stephen Douglas.
Liz Cheney apparently has the same attitude after her nearly 40-point wipeout in her primary the other night. In lieu of a traditional concession speech, the Wyoming congresswoman and daughter of the former vice president delivered a picturesque, made-for-TV call to arms invoking Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.
Cheney had a choice after Jan. 6 between political viability, which would have involved modulating her outrage over Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign, or political self-immolation. She chose a spectacular act of immolation — illuminating the night sky like the nuclear reactor at the outset of the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl.”
Hers was an admirable loss. It is rare that any elected official is willing to sacrifice his or her office over a matter of deeply-felt principle.
That said, she has undoubtedly cut herself off from the possibility of having a positive influence on the direction of the Republican Party via electoral politics, no matter how much she might want to think of her defeat as 1858 redux.
Lincoln’s run against Douglas for the Senate wasn’t a suicide mission. He came very close to winning and represented a rising political movement. His subsequent bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860 was a long shot, but he was a serious figure who had gained a national reputation and was comfortably in the middle of his party’s consensus.
Cheney, a pariah within her own party, is differently situated. Plus, strategically and temperamentally, she is not Lincolnian.
Although he had firm principles, Lincoln was always a political pragmatist and fundamentally a party man willing to maneuver as necessary. Cheney’s post-Jan. 6 approach bears less resemblance to Lincoln’s than to that of William Lloyd Garrison, the uncompromising abolitionist publisher who took unabashedly radical and unpopular positions and expected the world to move toward him.
As it happens, the world did move toward Garrison, but in the meantime, he wasn’t running for office.
There is zero case for Cheney attempting to go from the role of prophet without honor within her party to Republican vote-getter again.
It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of Cheney’s collapse. She went from winning her primary with 73% of the vote in 2020, to garnering a mere 29% that was heavily dependent on Democratic crossover votes.
Cheney’s alienation from her party is likely to build on itself. Already, she has said that she’d “find it very difficult” to support Gov. Ron DeSantis, the leading Republican alternative to Trump. In so doing, she is identifying herself with a fraction of a fraction of the party that is so small it is all but nonexistent.
Even if Cheney ran in the 2024 primary and got some traction, she’d only be taking voters from some other more viable alternative to Trump.
An independent run wouldn’t make any more sense. Again, if Cheney became a factor, the chances are that she’d be a place for Republicans repulsed by Trump to park their votes rather than go all the way to Biden. Just as with a prospective primary run, she’d be helping Trump at the margins.
Captain Ahab may have made a few mistakes in judgement in his stewardship of the Pequod, but at least he never allowed himself to affirmatively assist his great adversary, the White Whale.
One thing that’s been remarkable about Cheney’s performance the last couple of years is how apparently clear-eyed she’s been about what it means for her future in the House of Representatives, namely that she wouldn’t have one. In contrast, a presidential run of any sort would be giving in to delusion.
If Lincoln was dogged, he was never fanciful. Cheney should realize that she’s taken a path that, whatever its other advantages, doesn’t end in electoral vindication.
Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He is on Twitter: @RichLowry.