Frank Rich on the National Circus: Good Riddance to Liz Cheney, Our Tracy Flick

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Her reach may have exceeded her grasp.Photo: Cliff Owen/AP/Corbis

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture.

Liz Cheney ended her tumultuous bid to unseat Wyoming senator Mike Enzi on Monday, citing unspecified family health issues for her exit. Does Cheney's departure say anything larger about the state of the GOP and her father's legacy? Or is this just a case of an ill-advised, ill-timed candidacy? 

Cheney’s campaign was a rollicking disaster — she was dying in the polls — and some of her failure was specific to her: She was perceived (correctly) as an entitled carpetbagger who’d parachuted from tony Northern Virginia to tony Jackson Hole; a brazenly ambitious opportunist exploiting her family name; and a flip-flopper. Next to her, Tracy Flick, the ruthless student politician played by Reese Witherspoon in Election, seems like Eleanor Roosevelt. Besides, Enzi is well-liked and as conservative as many GOP voters in Wyoming would want, no matter how hard Cheney tried to contrive positions to his right. 

But there are two larger issues that do speak to the state of the GOP and her father’s legacy. The first is that the brand of truculent neocon foreign policy championed by Dick Cheney and George W. Bush is hopelessly tarnished, so much so that even Liz Cheney, who had initially endorsed American intervention in Syria in keeping with her father’s worldview, had to retreat from it during her campaign and instead fall in line with the rising conservative neo-isolationism of Rand Paul. The second issue, of course, is gay marriage. In her zeal to be on the “right” side of that issue with a Republican electorate, she insulted and disowned her own sister, Mary, as well as Mary’s spouse, Heather Poe, and the couple’s two children. It’s not clear that this offensive and hypocritical stand did Liz Cheney any good with voters, but it did highlight how mean-spirited politicians look when they trash gay marriages and gay parents, let alone those in their own family. Mary Cheney had it right when she said her sister was on the wrong side of history. So is most of the GOP. And that history continues to move very fast, making antediluvian conservatives look more malign by the day. That’s why, among the many obnoxious Liz Cheney moments in her short-lived political career, one of the most egregious was her exit: She claimed to be leaving the race because she was putting her family first when in fact the most famous incident in her campaign was her decision to trash her own sister’s family. 

Bloomberg Markets magazine published a report detailing Bill Clinton's involvement with Laureate, America's largest for-profit-college company. The for-profit-college industry has been tarnished as predatory and disreputable, and Hillary Clinton, in case anyone hasn't heard, is very probably about to run for president of the United States. To paraphrase Jay Leno, what the hell is the Big Dog thinking? 

The good news is that with a changing of the guard at the Tonight show, we will soon not have to paraphrase Jay Leno anymore. It’s also good news, I guess, that Bill Clinton is not involved with Trump University. But this is just the latest example of the land mines Clinton has been planting in his wife’s path for the presidency, should she indeed decide to run. As the Times reported in a major investigation, there are a lot of questions and there is not a lot of transparency about how the Clinton Global Initiative operates. And that’s the nonprofit Clinton arm of Bill Clinton’s post-presidency. His other business dealings have been profuse and often murky, and every single one of them is going to be investigated by the press if a Hillary Clinton campaign goes forward. The Bloomberg piece does not find any illegality in this instance, but the sleaze factor is considerable. Clinton serving as the “Honorary Chancellor” of a diploma mill that rips off young people — and doing it in a financial partnership that includes the hedge-fund titan Steve Cohen, whose SAC Capital Advisors is ground zero for insider-trading criminality — does not pass the smell test. “No Child Left Behind” has been supplanted by “No Cash Left on the Table.” In 2008, Bill Clinton’s ill-timed statements often seemed designed to sabotage his wife’s campaign, and you really have to wonder what he is thinking when he gets into deals like this that threaten her prospects in 2016.

Last week, Al Qaeda insurgents seized the city of Fallujah, the site of some of the deadliest battles during the U.S. war in Iraq. Hawkish senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham immediately laid the blame on President Obama for withdrawing our troops, and American veterans of the Fallujah sieges wondered publicly if the sacrifices of their fellow troops had now been rendered meaningless. Does this dark episode reflect a major flaw in the president's Iraq strategy, and do you think it will carry over to his approaches to exiting Afghanistan and dealing with Syria?

It is offensive to watch a sanctimonious John McCain, of all people, pop up this week and talk about how sad he is to see the Al Qaeda flag flying again in Fallujah, and about how he doesn’t know what we should tell the families of the Americans who lost their lives in the two battles for the city during the Iraq war. McCain (like Graham) was a major cheerleader for this war, predicted it would go “easily,” and argued for throwing more troops and money into its bottomless pit. He even minimized the sectarian divisions within the country, saying that the Sunnis and the Shia would “probably get along” once Saddam Hussein was toppled because there was “not a history of clashes” between them. The fact remains that Al Qaeda was not in Iraq until we invaded the country, and that McCain has never had any other policy for the war (including now) other than staying indefinitely. Indeed, Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-run Iraq, which he helped create, is now a sterling ally of Iran, the enemy he jokingly proposed bombing during his ill-fated presidential campaign. Should we now bomb, bomb, bomb Iraq (as he put it at the time)? What McCain should tell the families is that he apologizes for having been so wrong. 

As for Obama, he had the right strategy — in truth the only strategy — for Iraq, unless you take McCain’s notion of an eternal American presence seriously. Ditto for Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan (which even the former defense secretary Robert Gates endorses in his new book trashing the Obama national-security team). As for what Obama — or any president — could accomplish beyond the margins on any Middle Eastern front, the options are limited. To quote Jeffrey Goldberg, what we have is “one war, from Beirut to Baghdad,” and the track record for our past intervention in the endless Shia vs. Sunni struggle is tragic. More boots on the ground is out of the question. If we’ve learned anything since World War II, it’s that you can’t successfully fight a war without public support, and many, if not most, in McCain’s own party (see Rand Paul, above), would dissent from sending troops, in large part in reaction to the Bush-Cheney disaster that McCain helped gin up in Iraq. If anyone has a plausible idea for what might constitute successful American intervention in this inferno, I have not heard of it.