Liz Cheney’s op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal is an important and alarming document. She is not a marginal figure — she served as deputy assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs in the Bush administration. More important, she is a very close ally of her father's and the two have exhibited every sign of sharing a worldview in essentially every particular, which suggests that something very much like her brain held, depending on your point of view, either the second most powerful or the most powerful job in American politics for eight years. And she (and thus, by extension, her father) is obviously stark raving mad.
Even after four years of bug-eyed right-wing paranoia, Cheney’s op-ed stands out for its utter dearth of the slightest whiff of perspective or factual grounding. President Obama, she tells us, “is the most radical man ever to occupy the Oval Office.” He has “launched a war on Americans' Second Amendment rights.” He does not want the economy to grow. (“He believes in greater redistribution of a much smaller pie.”) Obama “seems unaware that the free-enterprise system has lifted more people out of poverty than any other economic system devised by man” — which is odd, because Obama is always saying things like “business, and not government, will always be the primary generator of good jobs with incomes that lift people into the middle class and keep them there.” The best approximations of America’s future under Obama are tiny European nations that lack control of their own currency. (“If you're unsure of what this America would look like, Google ‘Cyprus’ or ‘Greece.’”)
One might charitably attribute Cheney’s crazed rants on domestic policy to her attempting to opine on matters outside her field of expertise. Yet her litany of foreign-policy accusations is actually even more unhinged. Obama, she argues, has not only weakened America, he wants to weaken America’s world standing in the same way he wants to shrink its economy (“there is no longer a question of whether this was his intent”). He wants to “pre-emptively disarm the United States.”
She fears that we will somehow lack the nuclear capacity to deter foes that might obtain the tiniest fraction of our nuclear strength. (Obama “advocates slashing our nuclear arsenal even as the North Koreans threaten us and the Iranians close in on their own nuclear weapon.”) She believes “Al Qaeda is resurgent across the Middle East” and that Obama “stood by and did nothing” in the face of the attack in Libya, an especially bizarre belief considering Obama’s specific responses to the attack in Libya and general four-year record of endless drone strikes and, well, you know.
Deranged millennial paranoia of this sort has a long pedigree in American thought, on both the far right and the far left, though, crucially, only the right-wing variety has managed to operate comfortably within the two-party system. The most telling piece of Cheney’s rant may be a quote she uses, from Ronald Reagan in 1961, as a preface:
"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. The only way they can inherit the freedom we have known is if we fight for it, protect it, defend it and then hand it to them with the well-taught lessons of how they in their lifetime must do the same. And if you and I don't do this, then you and I may well spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free."
There is one confusing passage in here — “this.” Reagan warns that “if you and I don’t do this,” then freedom in America will be extinguished forever. But what is “this”? “This” referred to stopping the enactment of Medicare. In that speech, Reagan argued that establishing Medicare would inevitably lead to the government dictating by fiat where doctors could live and work, and then, also inevitably, to full government control over the entire economy:
The doctor begins to lose freedoms, it’s like telling a lie. One leads to another. First you decide the doctor can have so many patients. They are equally divided among the various doctors by the government, but then the doctors are equally divided geographically, so a doctor decides he wants to practice in one town and the government has to say to him he can’t live in that town, they already have enough doctors. You have to go some place else. And from here it is only a short step to dictating where he will go. …
From here it's a short step to all the rest of socialism, to determining his pay and pretty soon your son won’t decide when he’s in school where he will go or what he will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him where he will go to work and what he will do.
Conservatives still quote this speech a lot, strangely considering it a prescient warning rather than evidence that their fears of Big Government are usually totally wrong. The paranoia is simply transferred from one event to the next. Conservatives likened the establishment of Social Security to socialism and tyranny. Reagan, speaking a quarter-century later, assured his audience that he loved Social Security but that Medicare would surely fulfill those same warnings. Republicans now pledge their love for Medicare but see Obamacare as the death knell for freedom.
Cheney, typically, draws the usual lesson. “President Reagan's words, spoken 52 years ago this weekend, still ring true, with one modification,” she writes, “If we don't defend our freedoms now against the onslaught of President Obama's policies, we won't have to wait until our sunset years for American freedom to be a distant memory.” The destruction of freedom keeps happening in America, and yet, somehow, not happening. It perpetually lies just over the horizon, close enough to keep refreshing the supply of right-wing paranoia.