The Magazine

Don't Wince. Fight!

Dick Cheney, Most Valuable Republican.

May 25, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 34 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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When accused of being too aggressive on behalf of the United States at the United Nations, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of repeating a French proverb: "Cet animal est fort méchant, / Quand on l'attaque il se défend." Imagine--an animal so mean that, when attacked, it defends itself!

Dick Cheney is reminding Republicans that they need to defend themselves when attacked.

When President Obama released the Justice Department interrogation memos a month ago, Cheney denounced him for doing so. He explained why it was inappropriate and unwise to release such documents. But he did more. He didn't just defend himself and the administration in which he served. He fought back, and encouraged others to do so.

He challenged the president to release CIA memos evaluating the effectiveness of the enhanced interrogation techniques. He raised the question of whether congressional Democrats--Nancy Pelosi, for one--had known of, and at least tacitly approved of, the allegedly horrifying abuses of the allegedly lawless Bush administration.

Now, a month later, Pelosi is attacking career CIA officials for lying to Congress, and other Democrats are scrambling to distance themselves from her. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has pulled back on threats to prosecute Bush-era lawyers, reversed itself on releasing photos of alleged military abuse of prisoners, and embraced the use of military commissions to try captured terrorists. The administration now looks irresponsible when it lives up to candidate Obama's rhetoric, and hypocritical when it vindicates Bush policies the candidate attacked.

So while some Hill Republicans were fretting about getting a positive message out and others were launching substance-free listening tours, while GOP operatives were wringing their hands about whether Republicans could recover from the Bush years, and while most senior Bush alumni were in hiding, Dick Cheney--Darth Vader himself, Mr. Unpopularity, the last guy you'd supposedly want out there making the case--stepped onto the field. He's made himself the Most Valuable Republican of the first four months of the Obama administration (ably assisted by a few bold denizens of the Hill like the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, Pete Hoekstra).

Of course, this has resulted in some Republican political operatives' doing what they do best: complaining, on background, to the media. "As Cheney Seizes Spotlight, Many Republicans Wince," was the front-page headline in Thursday's Washington Post. Two Republican "strategists" spoke "on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid." Profiles in courage! One of them opined that Cheney is "entirely unhelpful." The other elaborated, "Even if he's right, he's absolutely the wrong messenger.  .  .  .  We want Bush to be a distant memory in the next election."

To have such a juvenile understanding of political dynamics, you'd have to be a prominent "Republican strategist." You might actually have both the Dole and McCain campaigns under your belt. Or perhaps you were one of those who encouraged the Bush White House to assume a fetal position on most issues in its second term and not fight back against slanders or defend their people, because to do so would spotlight the "wrong" issues or people.

But of course an intelligent and knowledgeable advocate--even if he's personally not so popular--can do a lot to get an issue front and center. And the debate of that issue can do political damage to the existing administration and its congressional allies.

The real question any Republican strategist should ask himself is this: What will Republican chances be in 2012 if voters don't remember the Bush administration--however problematic in other areas--as successful in defending the country after 9/11? To give this issue away would be to accept a post-Herbert-Hoover-like-fate for today's GOP. That's why Republicans should listen carefully when Cheney gives a speech this week in which he'll lay out the case for the surveillance, detention, and interrogation policies of the Bush administration in the war against terror.

Now it's of course the case that Republicans have to do more than fight back. They need a forward-looking agenda in all areas. They can't just defend themselves against slanders or point out the flaws of their opponents. But they do have to fight back first.

After all, if you're behind on the scoreboard, and your defense is on the field--there's nothing better than to jam up a couple of running plays, sack the quarterback on a blitz, and force a punt from bad field position. The momentum changes as your offense takes over with a shot at putting some points on the board. Dick Cheney probably won't be the glamour quarterback of the Republican comeback. But he's proving to be a heck of a middle linebacker.

--William Kristol