The Magazine

Cheney's War on the Democrats

He might be unpopular, but he's winning the debate.

May 25, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 34 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Well, that settles it. Maureen Dowd thinks Dick Cheney should shut up. Cheney, she writes, is "batty," has "numskull ideas," and "still loves torture."

Just as Jeb Bush and other Republicans are trying to get kinder and gentler, Cheney has popped out of his dungeon, scary organ music blaring, to carry on his nasty campaign of fear and loathing.

Cheney, she concludes, "has replaced Sarah Palin as Rogue Diva."

Oh, snap.

All of this, we are told, is hurting Republicans. "It is very difficult for me to understand how the continued presence of Dick Cheney in the public eye could be helping the Republican Party at all," wrote Joshua Tucker, a professor at New York University, on Politico in response to a question about whether Cheney is helping Democrats or Republicans.

As of late March, Gallup was reporting that Cheney still had phenomenally high negative approval ratings (63 percent) and phenomenally low positive approval ratings (30 percent), which is basically where those marks were a year earlier. For now at least, it seems that the more he talks, the more of a gift it is to the Democratic Party (and Democratic Party fundraisers!), and the harder it will make it for the Republican Party to put its disastrous results in the 2008 elections behind it.

Others on the left, though, want Cheney to keep talking. "As long as he remains the public face of the Republican Party, it will remind voters of why they elected Obama," wrote Darrell West, a vice president at the Brookings Institution. "Democrats should think about buying national TV time for Cheney whenever he wants it."

If they do, Cheney should accept. He's not only changing the debate about U.S. national security policy, he's winning it.

Since the first days of the Obama administration, Cheney has been publicly warning about the consequences of rolling back Bush administration war on terror policies. "When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry," he said in an interview with Politico, published just two weeks after he left office. He added: "The United States needs to be not so much loved as it needs to be respected. Sometimes, that requires us to take actions that generate controversy. I'm not at all sure that that's what the Obama administration believes."

The Obama administration eagerly engaged him. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs has regularly taken shots at the former vice president from the podium. When Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes interviewed Obama for a program that aired March 22, he assumed--correctly--that Obama would be eager to take on Cheney.

STEVE KROFT: One question about Dick Cheney and Guantánamo. I'm sure you want to answer this.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Oh, absolutely.

STEVE KROFT: A week ago Vice President Cheney--said essentially that your willingness to shut down Guantánamo and to change the way prisoners are treated and interrogator--interrogated--was making America weaker and more vulnerable to another attack. And that--the interrogation techniques that were used at Guantánamo were essential in preventing another attack against the United States.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I fundamentally disagree with Dick Cheney. Not surprisingly. You know, I think that--Vice President Cheney has been--at the head of a--movement whose notion is somehow that we can't reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don't torture, with our national security interests. I think he's drawing the l--wrong lesson from history. The facts don't bear him out.

This public back-and-forth has continued unabated, and Obama, for all of his personal popularity, finds himself--along with his party--on the defensive. He is in the uncomfortable position of arguing that Cheney is wrong about the "facts" surrounding enhanced interrogation and insisting that those facts be kept from public view. The CIA last week denied Cheney's request to declassify two CIA reports that provide details of some of the intelligence obtained in those interrogations. The agency claims that the memos cannot be released because they are the subject of pending Freedom of Information Act litigation.

Obama could overrule the agency, but he's chosen to hide behind the FOIA technicality. It's hard not to see politics here. On April 16, the White House declassified four Bush-era Justice Department memos that would have almost certainly been covered by the same FOIA restrictions. And on April 22, at the request of Senator Jay Rockefeller, the White House declassified and released a chronology of the Bush interrogation program.

Despite repeated claims that he will run the most transparent administration and his own order that federal agencies consider all FOIA requests with a presumption of disclosure, Obama has thus far refused to share key documents with the public.

Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has proved utterly incapable of providing a coherent or consistent narrative of her knowledge of the enhanced interrogation techniques. On Thursday, she accused the CIA of "misleading Congress" on interrogations.

While some of these wounds are self-inflicted, there is little doubt that the constant pressure applied by Cheney is having a significant effect.

Cheney is making arguments that the Bush administration largely avoided throughout the second term. Aside from an occasional, defensive speech about its war on terror policies, the Bush White House allowed its opponents to level harsh attacks with little or no response. Only in the final months of the administration did the White House offer a consistent, unapologetic argument that Bush administration policies, however controversial, were responsible for keeping the country safe in the seven years after the 9/11 attacks.

Equally important is that the views of the American public on national security are much closer to Cheney's than Maureen Dowd's. Democrats have made the assumption that because Cheney is personally unpopular, the policies he has advocated are, too. Obama did not become president because voters supported his positions on national security and the war on terror. They don't.

In a widely overlooked Pew poll on "torture" released late last month, respondents were asked: "Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?" (Cheney would no doubt object to the wording of the question, insisting that the policies used by the Bush administration were not "torture.") If Cheney is batty because of his views on interrogation, what must Maureen Dowd think of the American public.

A stunning 71 percent of those surveyed said that the use of torture could be justified--with 15 percent saying it is "often" justified, 34 percent saying it is "sometimes" justified, and 22 percent saying it is "rarely" justified. Independents fall decisively in what most journalists might characterize as the "pro-torture" camp. More than three-quarters of independents--77 percent--said that torture could be justified: with 19 percent saying it is "often" justified, 35 percent saying it is "sometimes" justified, and 23 percent saying it is "rarely" justified. The phrasing of the question also likely resulted in underreporting the support for what Cheney calls "enhanced interrogation," since some of the respondents might be hesitant to admit to a random telephone caller that they favor "torture."

Cheney plans to continue his public role as Obama's chief critic on these issues. He will formally appeal the CIA's decision to withhold the memos, and on May 21 he will pop out of his dungeon once again to give a speech that promises to offer his most comprehensive defense yet of Bush administration's war on terror policies.

No word on whether there will be organ music.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.