When a new presidential administration takes office, it is unusual for a former President or Vice President to be publicly critical of the nation’s new leader. Even the staff of the former commander-in-chief is usually careful to parse their words for fear of giving the international community the impression of a nation divided. Though partisan sniping among Congressional leadership is considered fair game after a reasonable “honeymoon” period, we have seen few instances when a former President or Vice President has gone out of their way to criticize the current occupant of the White House. Like so many other aspects of their reign, the team associated with the 43rd President is making up the rules as they go along.
In a remarkable run display of chutzpah, even for Dick Cheney, the former Vice President has set out to verbally joust with President Obama on the issue of national security and take Mr. Obama to task over his proposal to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. Already enraged by President Obama’s stand on torture, Cheney has been acting as a one-man wrecking crew for just about any audience that will listen. Among die in the wool conservatives, he is being cheered every time he suggests the President is making the nation soft on national security. By rallying the right, Cheney is also lining up a potential voting bloc for himself or for him to use as a bargaining chip to use with a future presidential candidate.
The depths to which Mr. Cheney is now seeking to validate his world view was on full display last week when he delivered a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on the same afternoon President Obama delivered a major address on national security. His behavior is in stark contrast to former President George W. Bush who has maintained a low profile since leaving office and has been careful not to voice criticism of the new administration. Cheney’s strategy appears to be having some effect though, as Democrats joined Republicans last week in rejecting the President’s plan to close Guantanamo, and polls showing some erosion in the public’s support of Mr. Obama on the issue.
President Obama has not been the only target of Cheney’s wrath. Mr. Cheney has also taken on former Secretary of State Colin Powell, suggesting that the decorated retired general supported President Obama simply because he was Black. Cheney also inferred that General Powell had left the Republican Party by publicly endorsing the Obama candidacy last year. Undoubtedly offended by Cheney’s attacks, Powell went on the offensive himself, making it clear that he supported the individual he felt best suited for the presidency and making it clear that he remains a member of the Republican Party. The former Secretary of State, during an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” pointed out his history serving both Democratic and Republican administrations, including those of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush.
What is beginning to be more apparent is that Dick Cheney is attempting to legitimize the Bush presidency and take full control of the historical narrative of that administration. Sensing that historians will not be kind to the Bush-Cheney years, the former Vice President is engaged in a full frontal assault to offer an altered view of that administration that absolves him of any responsibility for the chaos that ensued at Guantanamo. Mr. Cheney, while suggesting he is setting the record straight, is also speaking in such a way that plays on the fears of a paranoid public while riling up the right as the party floats adrift in search for direction.
In many ways, Mr. Cheney’s antics reveal the deep fissure in the Republican Party that is growing wider by the day. On the one hand, the likes of Cheney and radio personality Rush Limbaugh have moved aggressively to set the course for the party. Meanwhile moderates like Powell and former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge voice dismay with the party’s seemingly rightward turn but have not engaged on the ground to launch a counter-offensive to Cheney and Company. Exposing the rift even more was the recent passing of former HUD Secretary and New York Congressman, Jack Kemp, a longtime voice of moderation in the GOP. Further complicating matters is the erratic behavior of Republican National Committee chairperson Michael Steele. At times conciliatory and expressing the intent to bridge the party’s racial divide, Steele has been demonstrating, of late, a schizophrenia that has him on some days sounding like Kemp while on others channeling Ronald Reagan. His inability to define the party is giving the former Vice President as well as Bush strategist Karl Rove plenty of room to wreak havoc.
The ball is now clearly in Mr. Obama’s court. He must first corral Democrats on the Hill and reinforce his position that closing Guantanamo will not jeopardize national security. To do this he must quell the hysteria that ensued upon his suggestion that our nation’s maximum-security facilities are well equipped to hold suspected terrorists. The backlash from the Hill was primarily driven by the perception, fueled by Mr. Cheney, that Mr. Obama does not fully understand the need to engage in practices to keep the nation safe that are not consistent with a nation that espouses the “rule of law.” The fear that Mr. Obama would unleash terrorists upon the nation, while foolish, began to register in polling; suggesting that the President needs to do a much better job explaining his plan to the American public. As for his newfound nemesis, Dick Cheney, the President needs reinforcement from surrogates who will fire back at the former Vice President, allowing Mr. Obama to remain above the fray. The President must first get the Democrats house in order if he is to have a reasonable chance at achieving his goal of closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.