Liz Cheney's decision to challenge a three-term incumbent Republican senator has caused a certain amount of soul-searching within the GOP. The Republican dilemma—support for a dynamic candidate versus loyalty to a good soldier—is a real one.
And it reminds me of Sen. J. William Fulbright (1905-95), of all people. Fulbright of Arkansas, a famous critic of Cold War foreign policy, is not much admired in these precincts; but I always had a weakness for him. He was a thoughtful politician with a scholarly bent (he had been a Rhodes Scholar) and courtly demeanor, and he didn't demonize people with whom he disagreed. Anyone with a taste for legislative civility, Southern-style, will profit from reading his extended debate with Mississippi's Sen. John Stennis – The Role of Congress in Foreign Policy – published by AEI in 1971. He was, and remains, the longest-serving chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
In 1974, Fulbright sought a sixth term in the Senate and, at 69, was exactly the same age as Liz Cheney's opponent, Sen. Mike Enzi. But the retiring one-term governor of Arkansas, Dale Bumpers, chose to run against Fulbright in the Democratic primary, and Bumpers defeated him.
At the time, I believed this to be a calamity: Whatever you thought of his opinions, Fulbright was a distinguished senator and thoughtful participant in the foreign policy debates; Bumpers was a supreme mediocrity – and remained as much throughout his four terms in the Senate. It seemed grotesque for Arkansas to cast aside a statesman in favor of a blow-dried Claghorn. Moreover, the senior senator from Arkansas, John McClellan, was planning to retire in two years: Bumpers could have chosen to wait and, at 51, succeed him in the Senate without vanquishing Fulbright.
In retrospect, I suppose, it could be argued that Fulbright served for five terms in the Senate, and had enjoyed a certain eminence for decades: No one is entitled to lifetime tenure in political office. But I still tend to think that the qualitative difference between Bumpers and Fulbright was decisive, and at 69, Fulbright was in good health and full possession of his faculties.
In a sense, things are exactly the reverse in Wyoming. It is true that Mike Enzi has been a stalwart, reliable, low-key public servant who does not necessarily deserve to be retired. Yet no one has ever accused him of distinction, and at a moment when the Republican Party could use some smart, articulate, and ambitious voices in Congress, the choice between Mike Enzi and Liz Cheney seems obvious. So Republicans in Wyoming have a difficult decision: abandon an old friend, or tarnish a rising star. But much is at stake, and politics is a notably unsentimental business.