The president plays defense on security.
* MAY 26, 2009
By goading a sitting president into responding to his arguments on his terms, Dick Cheney won the contest with Barack Obama last week before either said a word. And his re-emergence onto the public square seems to be driving everybody nuts.
"Cheney has popped out of his dungeon, scary organ music blaring, to carry on his nasty campaign of fear and loathing," wrote Maureen Dowd in her New York Times column earlier this month. A talking head on cable declared the former vice president's speech last Thursday "as sleazy a presentation by a vice president as we've had since Spiro Agnew."
Other news outlets resurrected the image of Mr. Cheney as Darth Vader, the iconic Star Wars villain. And of course fellow Republicans Tom Ridge and Colin Powell rushed in to reassure their audiences that Mr. Cheney didn't speak for them.
Ironically, it was left to Chris Matthews -- one of the vice president's most unrelenting critics -- to offer the best take on last week's dueling speeches. On his Sunday show, he put it this way: "I saw something from Barack Obama I never even saw in the campaign, a sense he was listening for footsteps, that he could hear Cheney coming at him and he was defensive."
Think about that. Back in those heady days after the 2008 election, anyone who suggested that Mr. Obama might find himself playing defense to Dick Cheney on Guantanamo would have been hauled off as barking mad. Yet that's exactly what Mr. Cheney has pulled off, leaving a desperate White House to try to drown him out by adding an Obama speech the same day Mr. Cheney was slated to address the American Enterprise Institute.
Of course, the effect was just the opposite. The White House reaction ended up elevating Mr. Cheney to Mr. Obama's level, and ensuring that his words would be measured directly against the president's. Like him or loathe him, Mr. Cheney forced the president to engage him.
For much of the Beltway, the Cheney surge is baffling. After all, when Mr. Cheney left office, his reputation seemed divided between those who thought him a punch line on late-night TV and those who thought him a war criminal. As so often happens, however, the conventional wisdom seems to have blinded Mr. Cheney's ideological opponents to the many advantages he brings to the table.
First is his consistency. The case he is making now is the same case he has been making for the past seven years. Even people who disagree with that case would have to concede its coherence, resting as it does on the notion that the United States is at war with terrorists and must react as a nation at war.
By contrast, Mr. Obama's war policies are increasingly incoherent. As a candidate, he excoriated the Bush approach to terror root and branch. As president, however, he has adopted some of the Bush policies, flip-flopped to the Bush side on others, and found himself at odds with his own party on closing down Guantanamo.
His speech on Thursday reflected these contradictions, at once reassuring the antiwar left that the Bush antiterror policies have been fully repudiated while trying to signal everyone else that he has retained most of their substance.
Second, Mr. Cheney is engaging Mr. Obama on an issue where Democrats have traditionally found themselves on the defensive: national security. Understandably, Mr. Obama's supporters are enraged when Mr. Cheney says the new president is unraveling "some of the very policies that have kept our people safe since 9/11."
But let's remember that Mr. Obama has been making much the same attack on the Bush administration. Indeed, the president repeated these attacks on Thursday, saying that the Bush policies on Guantanamo and enhanced interrogation have created more terrorists, betrayed our ideals and made America less safe. In many ways, Mr. Cheney's attacks on Mr. Obama's war policies are simply an example of what goes around comes around.
Finally, and perhaps most important, when your approval ratings are as low as Mr. Cheney's, you have nothing to lose by saying what you think -- and your ratings have nowhere to go but up. And that's just what is happening. A new CNN/Opinion Research survey released the same day as Mr. Cheney's speech showed his approval ratings at 37% -- up eight points since he left office.
In his remarks at the American Enterprise Institute, Mr. Cheney noted that serving as a vice president with no desire for the Oval Office left him free from many of the usual distractions of political ambition. "Today," he told the crowd, "I'm an even freer man . . . a career in politics behind me, no elections to win or lose, and no favor to seek."
That might be something for Mr. Obama to think about the next time he gets a hankering to take on Dick Cheney.