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Liz vs. Nikki

One is a profile in courage. The other is a profile in appeasement.
August 18, 2022
Liz vs. Nikki
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages)

On Tuesday night, Liz Cheney conceded that she had lost the Republican primary to keep her seat in Congress. But her eyes were on a bigger threat. Donald Trump’s successful campaign to oust her, through the candidacy of election denier Harriet Hageman, was just one battle in a larger war against American democracy. And Cheney is determined to win that war.

Cheney’s clarity about the gravity of this crisis, and about the urgency of meeting it, reflects her hawkish roots. Like her father, she’s vigilant in America’s defense. But she understands that foreign terrorists and dictators aren’t the only threats to our country. The United States can also be destroyed by despots and extremists within.

This resolve distinguishes Cheney from Nikki Haley, another woman who might soon run for president. Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. She, too, presents herself as a hawk. But unlike Cheney, Haley shrinks from the menace at home. She bends her knee to Trump. She’s the candidate of appeasement.

Cheney and Haley have a lot in common. They’re Republicans, they’re deeply interested in foreign policy, and they think we need more women in office. “For the most part, men are running the world. And it is really not going that well,” Cheney observed in a speech at the Reagan Library in June. Haley makes the same point in speeches and interviews: “We’ve tried men for a while. Maybe a woman’s what we need.”

Haley thinks she’s the woman we need. Last month, in a Fox News interview, she argued that “the first female president” should be “a strong, conservative Republican.” She often quotes Margaret Thatcher: “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.” Haley has even adopted that line as the title of her forthcoming book, If You Want Something Done: Leadership Lessons from Bold Women.

Within the Republican party, it’s certainly true that men in power have failed. Kevin McCarthy, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, and other chest-beaters have exposed themselves as weaklings. They preen about strength and manhood, but they prostrate themselves before Trump. In the January 6th hearings, Cassidy Hutchinson, a 26-year-old former aide to Mark Meadows, showed more courage than did Meadows or other men who worked for the former president.

But that doesn’t mean electing more women will solve our problems. Men have no monopoly on cynicism or cowardice. Some women, like Cheney, are truly brave. Others, like Haley and Rep. Elise Stefanik—who took Cheney’s post in the House GOP leadership by sucking up to Trump—are not. To them, like many of the men around them, strength and boldness are just slogans.

In her speech on Tuesday night, Cheney explained how the present threat to America fits into a conservative understanding of the world. “Most of world history is a story of violent conflict, of servitude and suffering,” she told her audience. “Most people in most places have not lived in freedom. Our American freedom is the providential departure from history. We are the exception.”

That exception is now in peril, thanks to Trump and his collaborators. “Our survival is not guaranteed,” said the congresswoman. “History has shown us over and over again how poisonous lies destroy free nations.”

Cheney recalled speaking recently with a man from Brazil who told her, “I know how fragile freedom is, and we must not lose it here.” Then she described a conversation with a descendant of Holocaust survivors who “said she was afraid that she had nowhere to go if freedom died here.” In her remarks, Cheney concluded: “Freedom must not, cannot, and will not die here. We must be very clear-eyed about the threat we face and about what is required to defeat it.”

Trump’s latest campaign to incite an uprising—this time against the FBI and abetted, as usual, by Republican leaders—is an extension of this threat. “Donald Trump knows that voicing these conspiracies will provoke violence and threats of violence. This happened on January 6, and it’s now happening again,” Cheney pointed out. “Today, our federal law enforcement is being threatened. A federal judge is being threatened. Fresh threats of violence are arising everywhere.”

That’s how a true hawk thinks about Trump, his henchmen, and the extremists who follow him.

But it’s not how Haley thinks about Trump. In speeches and interviews, she brags about standing up to China, Russia, and other thuggish regimes in the United Nations. “Evil is real, and it needs to be confronted,” she declared in a speech last month. “We should never stop standing for freedom and democracy. And we should always stand strong against tyrants like Russia.”

She’s right. But it’s easy to talk tough at the United Nations. It’s a lot harder to confront evil and stand up for democracy when the tyrant is your own boss, or when he has the power to torpedo your political career.

Cheney passed that test. She denounced Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. For that, she lost her leadership post in the GOP. And on Tuesday, she lost her seat in Congress.

Haley chose the path of appeasement. First she excused Trump’s false statements about the 2020 election, insisting that “genuinely, to his core, he believes he was wronged.” Then, after criticizing him for January 6, she backed off and said she would support him for president in 2024. Then she went to Mar-a-Lago to make up with him.

Ten days ago, in a Fox News interview, Haley lectured President Biden about standing up to bullies. “Biden has run scared,” she said. “We’ve got to start showing strength.” But when Fox News correspondent Mike Emanuel asked Haley about Trump, here’s what happened:

Emanuel: Given revelations from the January 6 Committee hearings this summer that President Trump still encouraged the crowd to go to the Capitol on January 6 even though he knew some of them were armed; that the fake electors plan was illegal; and he still put pressure on Vice President Pence at the time—does that give you any cause for concern? Should he not run in 2024?

Haley: Well, I think President Trump will decide for himself if he wants to run again. And the January 6 has been a biased committee from the start, without anyone pushing back on any of the information they have. So it’s very hard for Americans to trust it.

That’s the answer of a collaborator. And Trump knows it. Last year, in an interview with Vanity Fair, he said of Haley: “Every time she criticizes me, she un-criticizes me about 15 minutes later.”

If you want something said about courage and defending America, ask a woman like Haley. If you want something done about it, ask a woman like Cheney.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.