By Hans Nichols
May 22 (Bloomberg) -- Former Vice President Dick Cheney accomplished something yesterday that Republicans have seldom been able to do: directly challenge President Barack Obama in real time on a major policy issue.
In a nationally televised speech delivered just minutes after Obama had spoken on how to protect the U.S. against terrorism, Cheney defended the decisions he and former President George W. Bush made after the Sept. 11 attacks, including using harsh interrogation methods on terror suspects.
While Republican leaders have largely avoided direct attacks on Obama and focused instead on Democratic congressional leaders, Cheney, 68, has taken the opposite tack. Republican lawmakers and strategists said he was able to raise the intensity of the criticism yesterday because, unlike other party members, he isn’t worried about damaging any future political ambitions by taking on a popular president.
Cheney “might not have the highest favorability ratings, but on this issue, I think he’s viewed by people across the country as being very credible and very knowledgeable,” said Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican. “What he says carries a lot of weight.”
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said Cheney’s prominence in the debate was actually an advantage for the administration, because it showed disarray within the Republican Party.
Most Republicans would probably prefer to be represented by a standard-bearer whose name was “picked out of a hat” rather than Cheney, Emanuel said in an interview.
In a poll by CNN/Opinion Research Corp. that was released this week, 55 percent of respondents said they had an unfavorable opinion of Cheney, compared with 37 percent who had a favorable view. That was an 8-percentage-point improvement from January, when Bush and Cheney left office with approval ratings near the lowest levels in history. By contrast, Obama’s approval ratings have been above 60 percent since he took office Jan. 20.
Still, Republican strategist Jim Pinkerton said Cheney’s popularity “doesn’t really matter,” because he “is not running for anything.” What is important, he said, is that “Cheney absolutely has the better of the argument.”
Pinkerton pointed to the 90-6 vote in the Senate on May 20 when Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, joined Republicans to strip from a spending measure the $80 million Obama requested to fulfill his promise to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by the end of the year.
Take Reid’s Word
“Don’t take my word for it, take Harry Reid’s word for it,” Pinkerton said.
Obama appeared yesterday at the National Archives, the repository of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, to build public support for his national-security policies in the wake of reversals such as the Senate vote.
The detention center at Guantanamo, he said, “set back the moral authority that is America’s strongest currency in the world.” The Bush administration “was defending positions that undermined the rule of law,” he said.
Almost as soon as Obama finished his remarks, Cheney began speaking just two miles away, at the American Enterprise Institute, a research organization that generally supported Bush’s policies.
He opened his speech by joking about Obama’s address starting late. His tone quickly turned more grave as he claimed that interrogation tactics such as waterboarding saved American lives.
“When an entire population is targeted by a terror network, nothing is more consistent with American values than to stop them,” he said. He would make those decisions again “without hesitation,” he said.
John Feehery, a Republican consultant, said Cheney’s instant response to Obama gave his party one of its rare victories since the Democrats took control of the White House and both chambers of Congress in the November election: the ability to challenge Obama’s domination of the airwaves and the news cycle.
That success, said Feehery, who served as spokesman for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, was linked to the decision to engage the Democrats on the theme of national security, a subject where Republicans have historically had an advantage.
‘Everything We Could’
“The percentages are more with Cheney than Obama,” Feehery said. “What Cheney is basically arguing is that we did everything we could to make the country safer, and what Obama is arguing is that we don’t have to do as much to make the country safer.”
Feehery said Cheney had gotten the better of the president with barbed lines like one in which he said the current administration’s approach is more geared to receiving “applause in Europe” than protecting America’s security.
“There’s no doubt about it, this is the first time they’ve got him,” he said. “This is the first time that Republicans feel like they have some momentum.”
He said Cheney’s defense of the Bush policies as necessary to protect the U.S. will seem prescient in the event of a terrorist attack.
“If something goes wrong, people are going to remember what Cheney said,” Feehery said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Hans Nichols in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Updated: May 22, 2009 00:01 EDT