When the Republican Jewish Coalition hosted its annual winter conference at Las Vegas's splashy Palazzo hotel earlier this month, party luminaries such as Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham showed up to hobnob with some of the GOP's most generous donors. But the guest who seemed to excite the audience the most was a diminutive, former mid-level State Department official who has never held elected office. Introduced by Miriam Adelson, wife of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, Elizabeth Cheney delivered a rousing attack on Barack Obama's foreign policy that won her a standing ovation. It was an impressive performance by Cheney, a policy wonk, law-school grad, and mother of five who may now be bidding to establish America's next political dynasty.
It's telling that no one at the Palazzo seemed very concerned that Liz, daughter of Dick, had just four days earlier appalled many in her own party's establishment. Her conservative advocacy group, Keep America Safe, had launched a nasty assault on seven Justice Department lawyers who had defended Guantánamo detainees. The ad branded the Justice lawyers "the Al Qaeda Seven" and asked, in ominous tones, "Whose values do they share?" To many critics within and outside the GOP, the attack smacked of McCarthyism for seeming to impugn the loyalty of lawyers who—like all members of their profession—sometimes represent unpopular (and guilty) clients. Nineteen conservative lawyers later issued a statement denouncing the ad. Among them were Ken Starr and top officials who had served in the George W. Bush administration. "I was horrified," says John Bellinger, Condoleezza Rice's former chief counsel.
Like father, like daughter, it seems. Much as Dick Cheney staked out the far right wing of the Bush administration, winning the respect and gratitude of GOP hawks despite his low popularity nationwide, Liz seems eager to make her reputation by unnerving her party's moderates. In another era—one less driven by ideological extremes—the vicious attack ad might have sunk her political career. But now it may have only turbocharged it. Cheney's aides could barely contain their glee last week at the ruckus they had stirred up. "For $1,000, we've driven the debate for over a week," said one political adviser, who asked not to be identified because the group, co-led by conservative commentator Bill Kristol, wanted to speak only through official statements. Or as one of Liz Cheney's biggest fans, Rush Limbaugh, put it on his radio show: "It sure as hell got everybody's attention, didn't it?" (Cheney herself did not respond to a request for comment.)
The 43-year-old Cheney appears modest and unassuming, but she's been rattling the GOP establishment for much of the last decade. After she left the State Department in 2006 to have a baby, later joining Fred Thompson's presidential campaign, Cheney became a fierce political combatant on the TV talk circuit. When Larry King asked her last year about the "birther" conspiracy, she said she didn't believe Obama was born in a foreign country, but explained the movement by saying people are "increasingly uncomfortable with an American president who seems afraid to defend America." Her uncompromising views were apparent even before that, going back to her two stints at the State Department under George W. Bush. During her first tenure at State, as a deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs under Colin Powell from 2002 to 2004, Cheney faithfully followed administration policy but became known for pushing her father's give-no-quarter views on terrorism. "It was very awkward, and people had to be careful in front of her," says one former official. "How do you conduct a viable meeting if you think one of the people is going to turn around and tell all to the vice president?" She also wasn't shy about letting people know who she was. "She came across to me as…pushing her weight around," says Powell's former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, who has often been harshly critical of Dick Cheney and the Bush White House. "She knew who her daddy was."
When Liz Cheney was promoted at the start of Bush's second term, becoming principal deputy assistant secretary of state, she upset some more moderate political appointees by pressing hard to use government money for regime change in Syria and Iran. According to several former colleagues who would speak about her activities only on condition of anonymity, Cheney began acting more as an appendage of her father's office, at a time when administration policy was trending toward a more diplomatic approach.
Dick Cheney told Fox News last year that he'd "love to see [Liz] run for office someday," and he thinks she wants to. Liz herself is more coy about her political plans, but if the impact of her "Al Qaeda Seven" attack is any measure of her ambition and effectiveness, a run may not be far off. After the ad slammed Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department for not disclosing the names of the seven lawyers, Holder was forced to admit that he himself had once filed a "friend of the court" brief in the case of an accused Qaeda detainee. (Holder had argued against President Bush's claim that he could indefinitely lock up a U.S. citizen without charging him with any crime.) Now, thanks to donations from old political supporters of her father's, like Florida real-estate magnate Mel Sembler, Cheney's group is also planning to apply the "soft on terror" charge to Democrats in this fall's midterm elections by airing targeted TV ads in swing districts. Though Cheney isn't saying, her group could also be readying her for a 2012 congressional run from Virginia, her current home, or her parents' home state of Wyoming.
GOP strategist Vin Weber says Cheney appeals to the "Sarah Palin constituency," but she has more intellectual credibility. "Nobody says about Liz" what they do about Palin, he says. Whether any of this is good for the Republican Party is anybody's guess. But at least a few moderate Republicans note—with some trepidation—that Palin may have a rival, and Dick Cheney may have an heir.