Q & A: Liz Cheney

The Wyoming Senate candidate talks to TIME

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Ruffin Prevost / Reuters

U.S. Senate candidate Liz Cheney speaks with voters during a Republican and Tea Party gathering in Emblem, Wyoming.

Liz Cheney‘s Senate bid has had a rough start. There was an early flap over her fishing license, and a kerfuffle over a tardy tax bill. The early polls have not been good. Now the former vice president’s daughter, who is challenging a popular three-term Republican incumbent in next year’s Wyoming primary, has seen a public dispute with her sister over gay marriage engulf her campaign.

Even before the family feud became national news, Cheney was fighting a difficult battle. She is running as an uncompromising conservative, but her opponent, Mike Enzi, is no squish himself. Unlike most primary skirmishes, this one is not about ideological purity: Enzi ranks among the Senate’s most conservative members. The Tea Party is not a factor. Nor is it about control of the Senate, since either candidate would coast to victory in one of the country’s reddest states. There are some policy differences between the two; among other things, Cheney jabs the incumbent for supporting the Marketplace Fairness Act, Common Core education standards, and participating in early healthcare reform negotiations. (Enzi voted no on the Affordable Care Act.) But the differences are mostly stylistic. “I’m not loud. I don’t poke my finger in people’s chests,” Enzi told me last week during an interview in Cheyenne. “But I’m able to talk to them and find some common ground sometimes.”

While Enzi is a familiar figure in Wyoming politics, Cheney has been shadowed by the carpetbagger charge. She moved to Wyoming last year, after a career spent in the corridors of Washington. All that was before the clash with her sister Mary. Cheney spoke with TIME on Nov. 12, before the family drama erupted, in a private room at a Cheyenne public library. Here are excerpts from that interview, condensed and lightly edited for clarity:

You talk about “fighting smart.” Was the push to defund Obamacare by linking it to a budget deal fighting smart? Or was it a mistake? 

When I say fight smart, what I really am focused on is getting results. It’s not an assessment of what Ted [Cruz] or Mike [Lee] have been doing. I applaud what they’re doing; they’re fighting for freedom, and I think there are not enough people doing that. But you have to know how to do it. You have to know how you can actually cut these agencies, how you can actually limit the regulation, how you can actually roll the federal government back. And you have to know when to compromise and when not to compromise. And when and how to negotiate, and how to do it from a position of strength.

There is not a whole lot of daylight between yourself and Senator Enzi in terms of policy. The differences I pick up are mostly stylistic and tactical.

Well, yes, except Senator Enzi’s been there for 18 years. When you’ve been there for 18 years, you have to deal with the results, what you’ve been able to deliver for the people of Wyoming. And if I thought that Senator Enzi, whatever his tactics, would be able to effectively prevent President Obama from taking the nation down this path to European social democracy…I wouldn’t need to be in this race. He hasn’t, and there’s no sense, frankly, that he will. I think we’ve got to have a new generation.

Who are the folks in the Senate who you might model your behavior after? 
I’m going to be my own person. As I mentioned, I’ve got a lot of respect for some of the new guys who have come in. I also have huge respect, though, for people like Jon Kyl, who’s retired, but who always had the courage of his convictions. Joe Lieberman was like that too. People who stood for what they believed in no matter the criticism that came.

The Republican Party is turning away from the brand of foreign policy that you and your father have long espoused. Is that a danger for the Republican Party?

I think that yes, it is dangerous. I think isolationism is a mistake, no matter what party you see it in. We have to remember that there are two threats to our freedom: there’s a threat that comes from the federal government, from the Obama Administration policies..but there’s also a huge and significant threat from al-Qaeda. The war on terror is still underway. Al-Qaeda is stronger today than it’s been in many years. We have to be able to protect our freedom from both of those threats.

You have said America is safer when it takes steps to liberate foreign nations from dictatorships. But you expressed skepticism about the course of action the President advocated with respect to Bashar Assad

I think there are some instances where U.S. security is threatened by rogue regimes, by foreign dictators, and there are some instances where liberating nations helps to restore our security. Afghanistan, I would say Iraq—places that had been havens for terror…The problem in Syria is that if the President had acted two years ago, it would be different. What was on the table wasn’t, Should we liberate the Syrian people from Bashar Assad. What was on the table was conducting limited strikes. Basically the President was saying we should do this to send a message. And I’m never going to be for the use of military force to send a message.

You say that President Obama has undermined American power. He has kept a number of policies from the Bush Administration in place, ratcheted up the use of drones. Why do you see him as someone who does not believe in the strength and greatness of America? 

You have to look at some of his own speeches. Look at the speech he made at the U.N. in 2009, when he said no world order that elevates one nation above others can long survive. That’s not somebody who believes in American exceptionalism. Going to Cairo that year, talking about how America abandoned its values after 9/11. You don’t go onto foreign soil, the home of Mohammed Atta, and criticize us…This is a president who is uncomfortable with American strength, uncomfortable with American power. I believe he came into office intending to take us down a notch. I think he came into office believing we’re a force for ill in the world.

Are there policies that your father was in favor of and you’re not? Where do you differ? 

I think if you looked at the differences between my dad and me, I think the biggest difference is he’s never been a 47-year-old mother of five. Another area is he’s more confident in the NSA program. My view of the NSA program is the following: I think it saved lives. I think it prevented attacks. And I don’t think we can be in a position where we’re saying, shut the whole thing down…But I do know that today, with a President who so clearly flouts the rule of law and the Constitution, there are legitimate concerns about whether we have the balance between civil liberties and our security right. That’s a question we have to ask constantly.

If it were me, I might view this race as an opportunity to extend the brand of conservatism you espouse. Was that a motivation at all? 

There’s nothing about this that is about legacy, or about the name, helping the brand. That’s just not the way my family works. I believe in the things that I’m fighting for and the way that I’m doing it. Continuing to make sure you’re fighting for what’s right even if you’re being attacked; the importance of having the courage of your convictions. That’s the main lesson, the main connection that I see. Having watched my dad, that’s what I take from him…If this was about the credentials or the legacy, you know, then I’ll go write a book. That’s probably a much more effective way. This is about the nation and the state.