In Washingtonian "inside the Beltway" terms, the most amazing aspect of former Vice President Dick Cheney's new clout is that he is achieving it the old-fashioned way: talking about public policy. He is not running for President or any other office. He has not formed a PAC or a D.C. lobbying firm. He is not dishing on former colleagues, not spreading gossip, not settling scores. He is, instead, writing a memoir about his extensive career in public service, and giving occasional speeches and interviews, mostly on national and homeland security policy, long his central focus.
How is it, therefore, that someone who has no political ambitions can cause so much angst at the White House and in the mainstream news media? The irrefutable answer is that what Cheney is saying, primarily on foreign policy, defense and anti-terrorism, makes sense to more and more American citizens growing increasingly worried by the Obama Administration's insouciance when U.S. national interests are threatened, both at home and abroad. Since the only real, long-term way to deal with persuasive positions on substantive policy matters is to refute them with sounder policy arguments, it is not hard to understand why the Obama White House is near panic. Where are they going to go to find a better policy inside his administration?
The most visible evidence that White House handlers worry about Cheney's scoring too many unanswered points came in May, in connection with a speech he was scheduled to give at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Cheney has had a long association with AEI, going back to the end of the Ford Administration. Later, after leaving the Defense Department in 1993 following Bush 41's loss to Bill Clinton, Cheney sojourned briefly at AEI, as is customary in the Washington think-tank world where many federal officials decompress and reflect on their governmental experiences before returning to business or other pursuits. Cheney later joined AEI's Board of Trustees, "stepping down" in 2001 as Vice Chairman, as AEI likes to put it, in order to become Vice President.
So, a major Cheney speech at AEI shortly after leaving the vice presidency was neither surprising nor aimed at the new Oval Office occupant. What was surprising, unprecedented and even unpresidential, however, was the Obama Administration's reaction. Instead of leaving it to allies in Congress, Cabinet officers, or the media to debate the former Vice President, the White House scheduled a speech by the President himself on precisely the same topic. Even more amazingly, they scheduled it on exactly the same day as Cheney's AEI speech, May 21, two hours before Cheney was scheduled to start his remarks. Political commentators searched their memories and clippings files, but no one could come up with another example of a President's so directly taking on even a former President, let alone a former Vice President.
So nervous were Obama's stage managers that they did not realize until too late that they had made a serious mistake by having Obama go first, thus allowing the amused Cheney and his waiting audience at AEI to watch Obama's speech and then directly critique his arguments as soon as Obama had finished. Tellingly, Cheney didn't have to alter the text he had already prepared, because he had already correctly anticipated and written out refutations of all of Obama's central arguments. The White House politicos had tried to set a trap, but had succeeded only in trapping their own President.
Combined in this one historic speech are the key themes that Cheney has sounded since leaving the Vice Presidency: the critical need to understand that we are in a long, continuing war against international terrorism, the importance of sustaining and enhancing our defenses and capabilities against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the risks we face in letting our guard down.
In particular, Cheney gave a vigorous defense of "enhanced-interrogation techniques," the detention facility for terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, and the national security benefits the United States obtained through its vigorous program of intelligence gathering. He criticized the Obama Administration's decision to release previously classified memoranda and reports about our interrogation techniques, stressing the benefits thereby gained by al Qaeda and other terrorists, and then challenged the administration directly: Why not release the full texts of these records, including specifically the information that our interrogation techniques had elicited from the captured terrorists? Let the American people weigh the value of this evidence against the techniques themselves, and let history judge. Needless to say, the Obama White House has done nothing, thus underlining the fundamentally political nature of the original Obama decision to release only the parts of the documents they felt benefited his partisan view.
So befuddled were the administration and its media surrogates by Cheney's AEI speech and his subsequent comments that they have insinuated darkly that Cheney actually does have a nefarious hidden motive. He is, they say, trying to defend his record and that of the Bush Administration, an obvious conflict of interest, they claim! Most people have scratched their heads at this criticism, which is what passes for devastating analysis by the media, because it is entirely natural for a senior public official to explain and defend his policies once he leaves office. In fact, it is critical that men and women who have served in high positions, as Cheney has, to do just that, to give our citizens a better understanding of what actually goes on in high-level decision making. With senior officials constrained by the limits of what they can say publicly while still serving in the government, the public often receives only a very limited understanding of what an administration's actual thinking is on key policy decisions. To have a former Vice President willing to go on the record once he leaves office is a huge service to us and our nation, helping to illuminate and explain key factors affecting our national security.
Perhaps most galling to Democrats is how closely Joe Biden's role as Vice President has tracked that of Cheney's, which these same Democrats criticized so vociferously while Cheney was in office. The main difference, of course, is that Cheney is much quieter than Biden, which objective observers have to score as a plus for Cheney.
Desperate to distinguish themselves from Cheney, Biden's media flacks say that he and his staff have worked well with Obama's White House staff, in contrast to the rancor and in-fighting of the Bush-Cheney years. This effort to re-write history, however, simply will not fly. Especially on national-security policy, the Bush and Cheney staffs worked well and closely together. If, at the end of eight years, the staff relationships were not as close as at the beginning, that was hardly Cheney's fault. Having worked as a White House summer intern for Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1972, I can recount from personal experience what it's like when the President's people are at knife's-edge with the Veep's. That's not what it was like in the Bush years, certainly not in the first term. Bush's second term was different for many reasons, marked notably in foreign affairs by the overwhelming predominance of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But even then, Cheney's relations with the NSC staff remained close, in large part because Rice's successor as National Security Adviser, Steve Hadley, had worked for Cheney at the Pentagon during the Bush 41 Administration.
Perhaps most importantly of all, Cheney knows that the personal attacks on him, as offensive as they are, in reality constitute stark evidence that Obama and his supporters are simply unable to match him in the substantive policy debate. An old lawyers' cliché says: "If the law is against you, pound on the facts; if the facts are against you, pound on the law; if the law and the facts are against you, pound on the table." Obama and his supporters are doing the political equivalent of continuous table-pounding, because that's basically all they have to offer. Cheney's unwillingness to be deterred by the media assaults on his character, his judgment and his performance in office are therefore his most impressive force multiplier with the general public. Outside-the-Beltway Americans see him for exactly what he is: a very experienced, very dedicated patriot, giving his fellow citizens his best analysis on how to keep them and their country safe.
Cheney's quiet, inner-directed motivation is simply impervious to the attacks orchestrated against him by the Chicago machine-style politicians at the White House, a fact also plainly visible to his fellow citizens. And it is yet another important reason to have confidence that Cheney's solid policy analysis will yet prevail in the national political arena. Of course he is the conservative of the year!
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.