The question isn’t why Rep. Liz Cheney, the defenestrated House Republican Conference chair, would run for president. The question is why she wouldn’t.
Cheney’s openness to a presidential run is entirely consistent with her overall political strategy since the January 6 insurrection. That strategy is almost unrecognizable in modern Washington, but it has a unique logic and a power. It’s usually referred to as “leadership.”
Cheney is doing what she believes is right and inviting others to follow. She began by announcing her intentions to vote to impeach then-President Donald Trump, which helped secure nine more Republican votes for impeachment in the House, thereby opening the door to seven Republican senators voting to convict. In other words, by doing openly and proudly what she thought was right, she made it possible for others to follow her. (Credit here also goes to Rep. John Katko, who was the first Republican to announce he would vote to impeach Trump, although he lacked Cheney’s position in conference leadership.)
Courage can be contagious.
Hence Cheney’s continued insistence on speaking the truth about the 2020 election results and the January 6 insurrection. She may be fighting a losing battle, especially in the short term. But she may also be to thank for the fact that 30 percent of Republicans—a dangerously high proportion, from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s point of view—know that the 2020 election wasn’t stolen. Without her leadership, that number might be in the single digits.
Having led so unflinchingly thus far, Cheney has nothing to gain by lamely giving up her post as House Republican Conference chair, likely her seat in Congress too, and retiring to private life.
Cheney has become the champion of the pro-democracy conservative movement. She is staunchly conservative—more so even than her father. She could even have been described as “doctrinaire,” at least until the doctrine of the Republican party became explicitly and aggressively undemocratic. But she’s unwilling to subjugate the American democratic experiment to her own policy preferences or the short-term electoral gain of her party.
(As an aside, I’ve received many emails from angry Republican voters accusing Cheney of being a “traitor to her party.” This is a contradiction in terms. It’s not possible to be a traitor to one’s party—only to one’s country. Cheney is accused of being the former because of her unwillingness to become the latter.)
What’s left but to keep leading? Having accepted the cause of American democracy and defense of the Constitution upon herself—not just in the formulaic, superficial way in which so many of her colleagues took their oaths of office, but in a deep and manifestly sincere way—what possible reason is there for Cheney to stop?
Of course Cheney should run for president as a Republican. She will almost certainly lose. But there is a long and noble tradition in running for president in order to shape a party, to organize and persuade voters, to lend prominence to an issue. If anything, mounting a campaign for the Republican nomination in 2024 is the logical next step in her continuing leadership.
Cheney has burned her boats. She knows that America needs two healthy, functional political parties, so someone has to lead the fight to change the GOP. The next logical step is challenging her party’s authoritarians for the biggest prize.