The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Liz Cheney could force voters to defend our foundational principles

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) listens during a hearing for the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection on Dec. 14. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Barney Frank, a Democrat, represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House from 1981 to 2013.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and the Democratic leadership have already done American democracy a major service by their mutually respectful cooperation in investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. Their demonstration that political leaders can jointly defend foundational principles while differing sharply on other issues is invaluable.

It could also be the basis for a great opportunity for American voters: the chance to express their support for the integrity of the democratic process regardless of their views on any other questions.

This can be accomplished with a two-step process. First, Cheney runs for reelection, not in the primary to become the official Republican nominee but as a principled independent in the general election who retains her personal Republican allegiance. Second, Wyoming Democrats do not support a candidate to oppose her.

The result would be a November contest in which all citizens of Wyoming could choose between two candidates who are aligned on the broad range of public policy issues and differ largely on the question of Donald Trump’s assault on the electoral process. Cheney can make clear that if elected, she will not vote for a Democratic speaker or change her position on any substantive questions. This will make it possible for other Republican leaders who share her principled commitment to campaign for her even though she is not the official nominee.

There will be hundreds of contests in the country in which Democrats and Republicans will differ sharply on the question of how to protect the integrity of elections. But they will also disagree on abortion, climate change, the level and content of government spending, etc. Only in an election in which candidates largely agree on the issues will it be possible for voters to decide whether losers of a fairly conducted election should have to abide by its results or whether it is acceptable to engage in blatant lies, bizarre fantasies, vicious personal attacks on innocent people and sporadic violence.

I acknowledge that this calls on both Cheney and the Democrats to extend their efforts one step further. She temporarily cedes the official Republican nomination for her congressional seat to a Trump devotee. Democrats give up their right to nominate a candidate or, if someone runs anyway, the opportunity to organize on his or her behalf.

Each of these sacrifices has real meaning for dedicated people who have taken their party affiliations seriously, as they should in the interest of democracy. But neither a Cheney win in the primary nor a Democratic win in November is a realistic possibility.

A general election between two conservatives who differ mainly on the importance of electoral integrity, on the other hand, would offer what social scientists call a natural experiment: a situation in which reality approximates what we would create in a laboratory if we could isolate a particular factor.

I might be overly optimistic in thinking that this could produce a positive result for political sanity. Wyoming is the state that gave Trump his largest percentage in 2020, and I have seen no poll on the electoral-integrity question of Wyoming voters.

But if pro-democracy conservatives are given the chance to support a candidate with whom they agree ideologically, and if Democrats and independents in the state are able to cast their ballots solely on their assessment of Trump’s response to the election regardless on their views on every other policy question, the outcome will be a better indicator of public opinion than any Republican primary or a partisan general election. And given the national interest this will generate, both sides will have more than enough money and media coverage to make their cases.

I do not insist this is a win-win for the pro-democratic side. It is, at worst, a win-tie. If Trump’s surrogate wins, we are no worse off than we are today. The opposite result will accomplish two things of great value: It will affirm strong support for our basic constitutional principles. And it might infect some other politicians with a dose of the courage Cheney has shown.