Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Maine and an early and outspoken opponent of the Iraq War, used his Huffington Post blog last week to ask in frustration: “How is it that someone as widely discredited as Dick Cheney is setting the terms of debate on national security?
The technical answer is easy: Cheney is a huge name and a provocative figure who made his mark in the shadows during the Bush administration. And now, with Barack Obama trying to undo some (but not all) of his dirty work, Cheney is suddenly speaking up to defend it—in stark, dramatic terms. The level of media coverage he’s received should come as a surprise to no one.
But, despite the voluminous coverage, this doesn’t really mean he’s setting the terms of the debate. Actually, the former vice president demonstrated on Thursday, when he delivered a nationally televised rebuttal (of sorts) to Obama’s national security speech, that his prominent role in the terrorism debate is very helpful to Obama.
In the days leading up to the dueling Obama and Cheney speeches, the president had been finding himself increasingly under attack—not just from Cheney, but from members of his own party and from a skeptical media. This was the result of several recent Obama decisions—like his aggressive move to block the release of detainee abuse photos and his plan to continue using military commissions in some form to try accused terrorists, rather than relying on civil courts or the Uniform Code of Military Justice—that provoked cries of abandonment from the left and charges of flip-flopping from the media.
And just this week, Obama encountered serious trouble with Democrats in the Senate, who blocked the authorization of funds to close Guantanamo—one of Obama’s top priorities—until he spelled out precisely what he planned to do with the detainees being held there. All of this was on top of the chirping from Cheney and his fellow Bush administration loyalists, who’d been accusing Obama of coddling terrorists from the minute he took office.
To casual news consumers (i.e. most of the voting public), Obama’s message of national security was becoming difficult to sort out. All of his plans, it seemed, were coming under attack from all sides. What, exactly, was this guy trying to do anyway?
That’s where Cheney comes in. He’d long ago agreed to speak on Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, which made it the perfect day for Obama to head over the National Archives to deliver his own clarifying remarks about his national security agenda.
Obama went first and used his 6,000-word address to reiterate his demand that Guantanamo be closed, framing his push in terms of the values and principles embedded in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
“Other countries have grappled with this question, and so must we,” Obama declared. “But I want to be very clear that our goal is to construct a legitimate legal framework for Guantanamo detainees—not to avoid one. In our constitutional system, prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man.”
When Obama was done, Cheney took the stage across town. The thrust of his remarks was simple and predictable: Everything the Bush administration did kept the country safe from terrorists, and anything done to alter or eliminate those policies will endanger the country.
“It is much closer to the truth that terrorists hate this country precisely because of the values we profess and seek to live by, not by some alleged failure to do so,” he said. “Nor are terrorists or those who see them as victims exactly the best judges of America’s moral standards, one way or the other.”
But forget the specifics of their arguments. No matter what he says for the foreseeable future, Cheney will remain an exceedingly unpopular and unlikable man. Only 37 percent of Americans now have a favorable view of him. Public opinion of Cheney, and of the administration in which he played such a central role, was set in place long ago. And it’s not like he has the kind of personality that can convince his critics to give him a second look.
This is the genius of Obama’s strategy. By scheduling his own speech right before Cheney’s, Obama ensured that the media would play up the dueling events to the hilt. To casual news consumers who aren’t well versed in the specifics of the national security debate, Thursday’s festivities made things very easy: On the one hand, there was Obama, cool and confident, outlining his initiatives and invoking time-honored values and principles. And then there was Cheney, the discredited and disagreeable VP from a despised administration. Whose side are you on?
By presenting his views as, essentially, the opposite of Cheney’s, Obama is likely to attract more popular support and sympathy. At the same time, Cheney’s vitriolic (and often dishonest) broadsides will help rally liberals, even those who have reservations about Obama’s agenda, behind their president.
This is a very nice arrangement for Obama, although not all of the left is happy with it. The fact remains that Obama wants a modified form of the Bush-created military commissions retained and that he favors “preventive detention” for some suspected terrorists. This infuriates the civil-liberties wing of the Democratic base, and they’re not about to fall for any Cheney smokescreen strategy.
As Glenn Greenwald wrote on Thursday afternoon: “Obama’s speech this morning, like most Obama speeches, made pretty points in rhetorically effective ways about the Constitution, our values, transparency, oversight, the state secrets privilege, and the rule of law. But his actions, in many critical cases, have repeatedly run afoul of those words.”
But Greenwald’s was not the dominant voice of opposition to Obama on Thursday. Cheney’s was. And, just like during last year’s campaign, any day when Bush and Cheney are in the news is a very good day for Obama.