In (Partial) Defense of Liz Cheney

Posted on Categories Civil Rights, Media & Journalism, Public

Cheney sisters

Is it possible to support a loved one’s life choices if you believe those choices should not exist? Consider the following hypotheticals:

Scenario #1: Your teenage daughter tells you she is pregnant from her no-good former boyfriend, and that she wishes to terminate the pregnancy. You are pro-life. Yet you realize that your daughter is the only one who can decide what to do (assuming she is not subject to parental consent laws, and perhaps even if she is). So you drive your child to her doctors’ appointments. You also tell her that despite your fundamental objections to abortion, you will do your best to make peace with her decision.

Scenario #2: You strongly believe children are entitled to information about their genetic parents. For this reason, you think sperm and egg banks should be allowed to work only with donors who consent to the disclosure of their identity and some basic information, and who agree to a minimum number of visits with any genetic offspring. Your sister has a baby conceived with sperm from an anonymous donor. You were beyond thrilled when she told you about her pregnancy, and you love your new nephew to pieces. Your views on the need for regulation of sperm and egg donor banks have not changed.

If these scenarios sound plausible, it is because our moral convictions don’t always dictate our personal interactions. Nor should they. The ability to appreciate that others may embrace values that are different from our own, and to react to their decisions with understanding and even respect, is a sign of maturity.

Now consider the next question: If your find yourself in a situation in which a close relative’s life choices are in tension with your values, is it unethical—provided the stakes are sufficiently high—to publicly voice your position?

Scenario #3: You are Liz Cheney (from here on I will refer to the Cheney sisters by their first names) and you have decided to run for the Republican United States senate nomination in Wyoming. In a Fox News interview, you mention that you “believe in the traditional definition of marriage.” Your sister Mary recently got married to her female partner, with whom she raises two children.

It should surprise no one that Mary and her wife Heather Poe take Liz’s statements personally, or that the press jumps on the fight between the sisters. More remarkable are the emotional responses Liz’s statements have generated outside the Cheney clan. Take, for example, Frank Bruni’s New York Times column about the fight. Bruni acknowledges that “[h]aving a lesbian sister doesn’t compel [Liz] to support marriage equality. Having a gay relative doesn’t compel anyone to. There are earnest divisions here, often driven by deep-seated religious convictions.” But he then proceeds to chastise Liz for deciding to run for office. At the very least, Bruni says, she should have declared her position on same-sex marriage—a topic that is likely on the mind of quite a few voters—off-limits. Liz, in other words, should have prioritized the feelings of Mary and her children over her own political aspirations.

Bruni’s personal attack on Liz based on her sister’s family status is misguided, and not just because the “Mean Liz! Poor Mary!” narrative seems overly simplistic.

First, political campaigns almost always impose far-reaching and mostly unpleasant consequences on family members (less so for a family like the Cheneys, who have long operated in the public eye). A candidate’s children are being photographed, the significant other’s physical attributes become fodder for snarky comments on the Internet, and dark family secrets come to light. The decision to expose loved ones to this kind of attention should never be an easy one, and perhaps this applies even more to someone who knows her positions are deeply offensive to an immediate relative. But ultimately, these are things for the candidate and his or her family members to work out, or not. They are not legitimately anybody else’s business.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the notion that one’s affiliation with another person or group should result in self-censure strikes me as deeply problematic. Ironically, Bruni’s argument is at its most effective against those who try to break though stigmas. It isn’t a big stretch to imagine a gay politician who is urged to keep his sexual orientation under wraps because of the pain it would cause his evangelical Christian parents if this information would become public. Moreover, the notion that you shouldn’t hurt your kin can easily be invoked to suppress dissent within minority or disadvantaged groups.  The underpinnings of Bruni’s position aren’t fundamentally different from those that underlie the “Uncle Tom” accusations that are often being hurled at Justice Thomas because of his opposition to affirmative action.

For better or worse, all of us are shaped by the families and circumstances in which we grew up. Yet if anything, those who pursue a career in public service must not let their personal experiences define them. That President Obama has relatives with problematic immigration histories (including an uncle who is facing a deportation hearing in a few weeks) shouldn’t disqualify him from enforcing the immigration laws. And few would expect Rahm Emmanuel to refrain from taking tough positions on welfare reform on the basis that his sister has been on welfare from time to time. Bruni writes that “[q]uestioning the validity of a marriage” causes a special kind of harm because it “challenge[s] the very structure and foundation of a loved one’s home.” But deportations rip families apart, and the impact of welfare policies on parents’ ability to provide food, shelter, and some stability to their children is tremendous. As Josh Eidelson has argued on, the argument for turning same-sex marriage into a sacred cow is ultimately not persuasive.

Lastly, the personal attacks represent a missed opportunity to engage in a substantive discussion. It is easy to portray everybody who doesn’t support same-sex marriage as bigots. In reality, however, there is genuine diversity of opinion in the gray area that stretches between support for gay marriage and wanting to outlaw gays (the picture is indeed far more complex; for example, not all queer rights advocates come out in favor of same-sex marriage).  In that same Fox News interview, Liz opined that there should be no discrimination based on sexual orientation, including in matters like health insurance. Personal attacks on someone who may strike many as moderate are at best a distraction. At worst, they could alienate people who are still feeling their way.

Today, the case for same-sex marriage seems cut-and-dried to a substantial portion of the American people. It is understandable that some feel the debate on this issue is one we shouldn’t have to have anymore. But let’s resist the temptation to get dragged into a Cheney family fight.


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