Aspiring warlord Liz Cheney is good for democracy

Why shouldn't she run for Senate? Incumbents don't need protecting from challengers

Published July 18, 2013 1:30PM (EDT)

Liz Cheney           (AP/Matt Young)
Liz Cheney (AP/Matt Young)

Aspiring warlord and longtime Virginia resident Liz Cheney is running for the U.S. Senate from Wyoming, mounting a primary challenge against longtime Sen. Mike Enzi, a fairly conservative Republican who is on the hot seat with the right for ... I guess for some sort of Internet sales tax thing? And also because he doesn't say "Benghazi" enough.

Cheney's announcement prompted a lot of commentary accusing Cheney of carpetbagging and also of betraying poor Mike Enzi. Enzi, for his part, was suddenly the recipient of some very friendly press. "“She said that if I ran she wasn’t going to run, but obviously that wasn’t correct,” Enzi told reporters. "I thought we were friends."

It is true that Cheney said, not long ago, that she considers Enzi "an old friend," but as she explained last night, sometimes friends primary friends.

“It’s not true,” Cheney told reporters in Casper as she formally announced her candidacy. “I did not tell Senator Enzi I wouldn’t run if he did.”

“I think Senator Enzi may be confused,” Cheney said, speaking at a press conference when she outlined her reasons for challenging the three-term incumbent.

In politics, "confused" is often code for "old and possibly suffering from dementia," especially when used by someone as deeply, profoundly mean as Liz Cheney, and this contradictory account of whether or not Cheney promised Enzi she wouldn't challenge him is sure to lead to even more pity for poor Sen. Enzi. But, you know, it probably shouldn't. Because there's actually nothing wrong with primary challenges. They're why we have primaries. Our senators do not actually have the right to avoid having to run against people who might beat them, just because they've been in the Senate for a long time.

So, to continue Salon's long and proud history of supporting Liz Cheney's Senate bid, I too endorse the Cheney campaign, because I am of the opinion that every senator and member of Congress should be primaried all the time, especially if they currently occupy a "safe" seat. That is the point of having elections: to have elections.

When journalists and longtime Washingtonians bemoan primary challenges they are often just protesting that some upstart is making life inconvenient for a member in good standing of the Washington establishment. Especially when the "good" Republicans are challenged, everyone gets a bit panicky. It's part of a more general distrust of democracy and fear of populism that is distressingly common in rarefied political Washington.

Liz Cheney is obviously a resident in fairly good standing of rarefied political Washington, and she is also undoubtedly a monster, but there is really no good reason she shouldn't go run for something if she wants to, even if some guy already has that seat. If we're going to give Wyoming two senators for some reason, can we really complain if they decide they want one of them to be Liz Cheney?

Primaries, obviously, are frequently closed elections and therefore not truly small-d democratic -- an incumbent more popular with the majority of a state's voters can be knocked out in favor of one more popular with a small fringe. It's true that Republican primaries are part of the reason the Republicans are now the avowed enemies of good governance. Primaries are why every so often Lindsey Graham lurches to the right and begins accusing Democrats of terrorist sympathies. (Well, they're part of the reason. He's also just an asshole.)

But if the problem with primaries is that they are the mechanism through which the GOP has become more extreme, the solution is not to discourage anyone from ever challenging incumbents. If primaries aren't democratic enough, the solution should be to make them more democratic. We should fix our entire electoral system! Let's try out open primaries combined with ranked voting. (As a New York City resident about to help select our next mayor, I am desperate for ranked voting.) FairVote has a million suggestions.

If Washington Moderates hate partisanship and want more moderate candidates, because they feel that that is what the American people are crying out for, only to have their dreams dashed by the partisan primary system, those moderates should all be trying to ensure an electoral system that expresses the desires of the people better than the one we have. (Let's try disapproval voting once or twice and see what happens, why not? It's not like the results will be that much more arbitrary than in our current system.) Just raising a big fuss when a longtime elected official is challenged, though, makes it sound like the concern is something other than a fear that the will of the people will be subverted.

Liz Cheney can help make everyone notice that the Republican Party has reached rock bottom. She might also help everyone see that our electoral system is in dire need of a complete overhauling. Sure, she would be a horrible senator. But since when is Mike Enzi so great?

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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