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Rand Paul Is the Real Target of the Cheneys' Op-Ed Attack on Obama

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The last time America heard from Liz Cheney, she was fending off charges that she’d lied on a fishing license application and was fighting with her sister, Mary, about gay marriage. Those issues—along with an embarrassing squabble with former Senator Alan Simpson—dominated her disastrous and short-lived campaign for the U.S. Senate in Wyoming, which she abruptly abandoned in January owing to the “serious health issues” of one of her five children.

It was a humbling experience for Cheney, who’d moved from Virginia to her family’s ancestral home of Wyoming in order to challenge the three-term incumbent Mike Enzi. And although people close to Cheney say those health issues were very real and upsetting, the perception outside her inner-circle is that she was driven from the race. Among the political cognoscenti, Cheney was damaged goods.

But today, Cheney has reemerged with both guns blazing from her secure, undisclosed location. She’s on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page—with her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney—attacking President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and accusing him of being “determined to leave office ensuring he has taken America down a notch.” And she (again with her father) has launched a new group, the Alliance for a Strong America, to, as she puts it in a direct-to-camera video, “educate about and advocate for the policies needed to restore American power and pre-eminence.”

I’ll leave it to others, like James Fallows and Brian Beutler, to weigh in on the merits of the WSJ op-ed itself, particularly as they relate to the former vice president's own record and degree of self-awareness. But evaluating the op-ed and the new group on purely strategic grounds, it’s clear that we haven’t heard the last of Liz Cheney. And the worsening situation in Iraq—which has occasioned her reemergence—suggests she’ll be on more comfortable political footing.

After all, one of the biggest difficulties Liz faced in her Senate campaign was that foreign policy was completely off the table. Instead of getting to ride the old neocon hobbyhorse of Obama’s perfidy and weakness in the Middle East, she had to talk about grazing rights and Internet sales tax—in other words, the things that mattered to voters in Wyoming rather than to her fellow talking-head panelists on Fox News. And even when it came to courting Republicans outside Wyoming for money and endorsements, Cheney couldn’t go to the neocon wheelhouse. Although some of the Republicans who hated her father’s foreign policy views, like Senator Rand Paul, supported Enzi, so did hawks like Senator John McCain. As one hawkish Cheney associate lamented to me last year about the Senate race, “At some level it’s a proxy war, but how much of a proxy war can it be when you have McCain and Rand Paul on the same side?”

Now, foreign policy is on the front burner again and the foreign policy debate inside the GOP promises to flare up. Rand Paul is the obvious standard-bearer for the non-interventionists. But what about the other side? While neocons have been lining up this week to bash Obama on Iraq and issue decidedly un-self-aware “I told you so’s,” most of them—Bremer, Wolfowitz, McCain, Graham—seem very much like last year’s men. That’s why it’s so interesting that Dick Cheney decided to share today’s stage with his daughter.

Among Republican foreign policy hawks, the former vice president remains a revered figure and, in some of their eyes, their most effective public spokesman. “He’s one of the few guys who’s not afraid to go out and argue on the most controversial terrain and make the case for surveillance and drones and a strong national defense,” a hawkish GOP strategist says. “There are some demagogues out there who have taken advantage of the moment, and Cheney can stomp on them.” The fact that Dick is being joined in the stomping by Liz, whose reputation among the neocon crowd could desperately use some burnishing after her campaign debacle, is telling. Last year, he tried to pass the family’s political torch to Liz in Wyoming, which didn’t turn out so well. Now he’s found a potentially more favorable arena in which to do so. While Obama is the ostensible target of the Cheneys' op-ed and new group, their real opponent isn’t Obama but Rand Paul and the school of foreign-policy thinking that Paul represents inside the GOP. Liz finally has the proxy war she’s been waiting for.

Even before Liz abandoned her Senate race, people in Wyoming were speculating that she wouldn’t stay in the state—that, win or lose, her family would move back to the home in the Virginia suburbs that they never bothered to sell. But six months later Liz is still in Wyoming (just witness that gorgeous mountain backdrop on the video she recorded for the Alliance for a Strong America) and it seems likely she’ll make another run for office there at some point. If she does, today will have marked the start of that long campaign. Yes, she essentially tried this move once before, launching the Obama-bashing group Keep America Safe in 2009 as a precursor to her 2014 Senate bid. It’s quite possible this effort will end the same way. But it’s probably her best move—and perhaps the only move she knows.