Liz Cheney's Family Values

Liz Cheney announced that she doesn't approve of gay marriage, despite the fact that her sister is a married lesbian.

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Liz Cheney speaks during a campaign appearance in Casper, Wyoming, Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Cheney recently announced her decision to back out of the Senate race against Republican incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi.

This past week, former Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Liz Cheney, a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Wyoming, made clear her disapproval of gay marriage. Now, there's nothing wrong with taking a political stance on a hot policy topic.

Unless your sister is gay and is married to her long-time partner, with two young children at home.

In other words, Liz Cheney dissed – and likely profoundly hurt the feelings of – her sister Mary, her sister-in-law Heather, and their children Samuel and Sarah. Mary Cheney responded by posting on facebook and asking her friends and supporters to "like" and spread her post: "I love my sister, but she is dead wrong on gay marriage."

Let's assume for the moment that the sisters do love each other and have a familial bond. The Cheneys are reportedly a close family, and even Liz's dad, former Vice President Cheney, has said of gay marriage, "I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish. . . . I think freedom means freedom for everyone." Given all this, it would seem that Liz is bucking the family on this one, as well as hurting her sister.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

So the question: Was it worth it?

If only Liz Cheney knew that a Senate seat isn't all it's cracked up to be, given the current dysfunction in the Senate. Just ask her opponent in Wyoming, Republican Sen. Mike Enzi.

As the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions – where I served as a Senior Committee Counsel to the Democratic Chairman – Enzi spent hours each week for countless months carefully drafting legislation to reform the No Child Left Behind education law. And then what happened? At the committee mark-up, Enzi was unable to bring along the vast majority of the other Republican members of his Committee, leading to a nearly party-line vote on the bill. Then, the bill died – partly given the lack of bipartisanship and partly given the reality that Enzi's counterparts in the House had a very different vision and had no intention of compromise.

Actually, that's fairly typical of what's happening in Congress these days: Lots of hard work and many hours devoted to solving major public policy issues – and then the bills just die in the highly partisan, highly-politicized environment in which people like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., explicitly announce that their top legislative priority is to obstruct the president, not to solve the nation's problems.

Put McConnell's obstructionism in historical context: Republicans have filibustered or threatened to filibuster (and forced Democrats to file cloture to break that threat) 250 times since President Obama took office. Compare that to a grand total of 49 cloture votes to break filibuster over the 50-year span between 1919 and 1971.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Hey, Liz, you might think twice about causing such a rift with a dear member of your family, especially given the political "prize" you're after. Give your sister a call, say how deeply sorry you are, and invite her, her wife and the kids to Thanksgiving. The Senate isn't all it's cracked up to be, these days, and it sure ain't worth throwing your family under the bus.

Moreover, what the Senate needs right now, in order to return to a well-functioning arm of democracy, is strong leaders who are willing to buck the destructive, petty partisanship that McConnell is so fond of, reach out across the aisle and get back in touch with the everyday concerns of Americans. Arguably, a candidate who is willing to say whatever it takes to win an election – including causing personal hurt to her sister – is not likely to be a leader who can help right the sinking ship.

This could, instead, have been a "teachable moment." Liz could have echoed her father's stand, or even stuck to her policy stance against gay marriage while still educating whoever in Wyoming feels threatened by gays and lesbians by saying, "Hey, my sister is a lesbian and is married to her long-time partner. I come from a tight-knit family in which we accept and love each other – warts and all. What's right for my family may not be right for every family, and I don't want to impose our family's ideas on the rest of Wyoming, but I do think it is wrong to be afraid of the love and commitment that people can share." Or, even, echo Pope Francis, who recently said of gay priests, "Who am I to judge?"  

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Gay Marriage be Legal Nationwide?]

Why would this matter? Does the name Matthew Shepard ring a bell? A young college student in Wyoming, he was tortured and murdered just because he was gay. In his honor, Congress finally passed legislation in 2009 to make hate crimes against gays and lesbians a crime. And hate crimes continue. According to the FBI, almost one in every five hate crimes in the U.S. in 2010 were motivated by hatred of gays and lesbians; the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that gays and lesbians are "far more likely than any other minority group in the U.S. to be victimized by violent hate crimes."

And Wyoming? It voted down such a hate crimes law for gays and lesbians. Think Wyoming might benefit from having the issue humanized a bit? The mere fact that opponents of Liz Cheney allegedly attempted to tar her with gay marriage tells us a lot about how that issue plays in Wyoming.

But instead of sharing with Wyoming residents the love that she feels for her lesbian sister, and trying to help spread tolerance, Liz Cheney pandered to Wyoming's most homophobic constituents.

Pandering is not leadership, and it's not what the Senate needs right now.

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