The latest issue of New York magazine has an extended profile of the Cheney family by Joe Hagan, which is worth reading in its entirety. It’s notable both for its evenhanded tone — there are a few tacked on asides, and suggestions of political mythmaking, but it’s otherwise devoid of the normal ridiculous tone which infects so many Cheney profiles — and its forward looking outlook, focused primarily on the vice president’s daughter. Cheney’s history has been written and written again — the Washington Post series, the essays, the books — and it’s refreshing to read a slightly different take on the man.
The aging political warrior, who many expected to fade into the shadows when he left office, gives no sign of going quickly or quietly. Despite his numerous heart problems, despite the continued attacks on his tenure, and despite his politically divisive nature, it appears that Cheney is going to have a significant role to play in shaping the Republican Party of the future.
What’s surprising to consider, less than two years removed from the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, is that Cheney may well be the only person to emerge from the Bush administration who has that power.
The amount of policy influence wielded by some former Bush administration officials on current debates is still significant, but in political terms, nearly all of Bush’s clan is on the outs. Insulated from the populist surge of the last few years, and tainted by poor decisions, W’s political team has very little to do with the direction of the GOP. Consider the total rejection of the Bush clan’s approach in their own state of Texas just last week — Kay Bailey Hutchison had gained near-total endorsements from ex-Bushies — prompting one prominent GOP consultant to suggest to me that “I think Karl [Rove] is just completely out of touch with what’s happening on the ground.”
A few years ago, a statement like that would’ve been laughed out of the room. Today, it’s an open question.
Cheney, though, is the exception to this rule. The White House’s decision to elevate him as an opponent last year was profoundly unwise, and his direct confrontation of President Obama plays well to the CPAC crowd. He’s adopted a public approach that he was unable to under the hesitant communication policies of Bush, and bears more than a passing resemblance to Winston Churchill’s wilderness years — one can easily see Cheney on Meet the Press today, glowering at the camera, intoning: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.”
Newt Gingrich summarized Cheney’s argument succinctly in a speech last year: “The reason we have Guantanamo Bay is that we have people there who want to kill us. They are called terrorists. It’s good not to have terrorists anywhere near us because it makes it harder for them to kill us.” That’s a message in sync with the majority of the American people — by 3-to-1 odds according to some polling — and thanks in part to Obama’s poor rollout of his decisions, and the ludicrous security risk of conducting a civilian trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York, Cheney’s already won his first political victory. And Obama’s supporters know it: as Jonathan Alter wrote yesterday, “this is a complete cave and it makes everyone involved look craven.”
The anger Cheney brings out of the left — and, frankly, the middle — glosses over a few facts worth noting. If I have one complaint with the New York magazine piece, it’s that it still casts Cheney as a “hard-right conservative.” Yet by nearly any measure, Cheney himself is a socially liberal and fiscally moderate Republican — he is and was to Bush’s left on abortion policy and same-sex marriage, and his record of endorsements is entirely moderate and establishment candidates (including KBH). His hard-right credentials are confined only to the arenas of national security and foreign policy.
Liberal commentators who jokingly suggest Cheney is building the basis for a 2012 campaign ignore the truth that, even removing health from the equation, Cheney himself would never survive a national Republican Primary. He is popular today among conservatives because he is advancing a winning argument, and because many on the right, still angry at John McCain’s non-confrontational campaign, enjoy seeing Obama confronted by a serious man wielding a rhetorical sledgehammer. Cheney’s surprise appearance at CPAC this year had a point to it: even though Ron Paul won a plurality of votes in the event’s minor straw poll, as long as the former vice president gets that kind of reaction from the base, it’s a sign that the party base will reject any attempt to regain majority status by appealing to the antiwar libertarian’s active supporters.
The question going forward is whether Cheney’s daughter, Liz — who this piece describes as a possible candidate for the Virginia Senate seat currently held by Jim Webb (George Allen and Ed Gillespie are two other mentioned possibilities, but Allen’s got a challenging road, and it is hard to see any basis for the election of Gillespie) — is cut from her father’s cloth. The profile paints her as a staunch defender of her father’s views, and she’s clearly a capable and blunt advocate on television, but it remains to be seen whether she can be a less divisive politician than her father, building and uniting a coalition as one of the voices of the new GOP. With her father’s connections and a good deal of natural media savvy, she’ll have every opportunity to do so.
As for the pater familias, Cheney will continue to do what he does: argue, insist, and infuriate. He is very good at this.