The Drake's Take

Cheney sisters can agree to disagree on gay marriage — in public

September 17, 2013

Maybe Liz Cheney is a better politician than I’ve been giving her credit for being.

She’s had some missteps: the “resident” fishing license and the unpaid property tax bill. Some will argue that moving to Wyoming and taking on a popular U.S. senator in her party’s primary was a blunder in itself.

Kerry Drake
Kerry Drake

But the early mistakes will likely be forgotten by August 2014. How she handles tough issues until then, though, will be critical.

Liz Cheney has always known that she would have to address the same-sex marriage issue, and that it could put her at embarrassing odds with her family. Her sister Mary’s marriage last year to her long-time partner, Heather Poe, has the blessing of their father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, who is as conservative a politician as they come.

In a Senate race in which you must position yourself to the right of the very conservative incumbent, how can you do that if you even hint that gay marriage is acceptable?

You can’t, and Liz Cheney knows that. So she didn’t.

Her sudden declaration that she opposes same-sex marriage took some people by surprise, especially since Dick Cheney has said people should be able to marry whomever they choose. Liz Cheney rarely disagrees with her dad; the only other public instance I can recall is when she upbraided him for saying that Sarah Palin shouldn’t have been John McCain’s running mate. So why take a position now, very early in the your first race, that isn’t even popular in your own family?

Because she’s smart enough to look at the numbers and know that she didn’t have a choice. You can’t out-right-wing your opponent if you start with a weak hand, no matter how much time you spend bashing President Barack Obama.

Liz Cheney said a recent push poll in Wyoming claimed that she is pro-choice on abortion and advocates strongly for same-sex marriage. She said neither is true and denounced Enzi for distorting her views, though he denied being responsible for the polling effort.

Mary Cheney holds a bible during Dick Cheney's second swearing in as vice president in 2005. (White House Photo)
Mary Cheney holds a bible during Dick Cheney’s second swearing in as Vice President in 2005. (White House Photo)

The purpose of a push poll is to plant in a voter’s mind something highly negative about a candidate that his or her opponent knows isn’t factual. One of the prime examples of how slimy they can be came late in the 2000 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina, where John McCain led George W. Bush by 5 percentage points.

Bush adviser Karl Rove concocted a poll that asked people if they would be more likely or less likely to vote for McCain if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child. Of course, Rove knew that McCain was innocent of the charge. But for some Southern voters it explained why his dark-skinned daughter was campaigning with him. Never mind that he adopted the girl, who was from Bangladesh. McCain lost the primary by 11 percentage points and his campaign never regained its momentum as Bush won the nomination.

Push polls can be vile, but politicians use them because they are quite often effective. It will be interesting to see if any others crop up from either side in this Wyoming Senate race during the next 11 months.

Other polls show why it was so important for Cheney to get out in front of the issue and not let it linger in voters’ minds. Jim King, University of Wyoming political science professor, said statewide polls in 2010 and 2012 both showed opposition to same-sex marriage, 55 percent to 40 percent. The numbers had dropped since 2004, when 69 percent of Wyomingites opposed gay marriage and only 27 percent supported it.

For Republicans polled, though, the results were far more negative, and that could have been key to the Senate primary if Liz Cheney had remained silent. King said during the past two election-year surveys in Wyoming, 74 percent of voters who identified themselves as GOP members opposed the statement that “same-sex couples should be allowed to get married,” while only 21 percent agreed.

Because of his statements and prior votes on the Defense of Marriage Act, Enzi’s position against gay marriage is well known in the state, but Cheney’s was not. The fact that she has a lesbian sister who is married, plus a famous father who supports same-sex marriage, could obviously lead some Republican voters to think she is sympathetic to the cause.

The GOP has used gay marriage as a political wedge issue against Democrats for decades, and because it works, there is little if any hesitation in using it against fellow Republicans. It’s a morally rancid tactic no matter whom it’s used against, but from a candidate’s perspective, it’s difficult not to use a weapon that could cause three-quarters of your party’s voters to intensely disagree with your opponent.

Now that both candidates have declared themselves to be in the Republican mainstream on same-sex marriage, it’s not an issue in the Wyoming race, at least in and of itself. But to some Wyoming Republicans, “family values” means actually sticking up for your family, and they won’t be pleased that Cheney effectively threw her sister under the bus on this issue. Her decision will help shore up the Tea Party base, but she needs more than that to defeat Enzi in the primary. Whether moderate Republicans hold it against her at the polls will likely hinge on how Mary Cheney responds throughout the rest of the campaign.

Mary Cheney made it clear that she’s not buying her sister’s lame explanation that same-sex marriage should be left up to voters in each state. She didn’t waste time calling her on it.

“It’s not something to be decided by a show of hands,” Mary Cheney declared, transforming her into an instant hero in my book and making me wish she were the one in her family running for the Senate. She said it exactly right: “Freedom means freedom for everyone. That means that all families — regardless of how they look or how they are made — all families are entitled to the same rights, privileges and protections as every other.”

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Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. The question I have is whether Liz Cheney would vote to support the fascist premises espoused by her PNAC-founding father, who is anything but a conservative, in the traditional sense of the word.