Is Cheney helping or hurting the GOP?

The former vice president is charging hard in defense of Bush-era antiterror policies, but some party analysts say other Republican voices need to emerge.

By , Staff writer

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    Former Vice President Dick Cheney appears on CBS's Face the Nation on Sunday, May 10.
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As vice president, Dick Cheney was Mr. Low Key. His extraordinary power played out behind the scenes, away from the klieg lights that followed President Bush.

Now, it is Mr. Bush who has settled into a quiet retirement and Mr. Cheney who has become the ubiquitous face on television, one of the Obama administration’s fiercest critics on national security. Historians cannot remember an ex-vice president charging so hard against a successor White House so soon after inauguration.

Only Cheney can explain his motivations. But there’s no shortage of opinion among political players and pundits on the impact the former veep is having – on the Republican Party, on the Obama administration, and on his own legacy.

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To a GOP that is out of power and demoralized, Cheney is both hurting and helping, says Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist now in academia.

“On the one hand, the party obviously has an investment in promoting new voices, so to that extent [Cheney’s outspokenness] is not helpful,” says Mr. Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “But on a broader scale, there’s going to be a long-term national security debate, and right now Cheney is one of the few individuals holding up the other side of that discussion.”

Challenging Obama's antiterrorism policies

In a nutshell, Cheney has spent weeks challenging the Obama administration’s approach to fighting terrorism, including the decision to close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, repeal Bush-era policies allowing “enhanced interrogation techniques” that some call torture, and release legal memos justifying the use of these techniques, such as waterboarding.

Since leaving office, Cheney has made clear he believes America is less safe under President Obama. On CBS’s “Face the Nation” last Sunday, Cheney said that Bush-era policies potentially saved “hundreds of thousands of lives” and that he has no regrets about actions the Bush administration took. Cheney also dismissed former Secretary of State Colin Powell as a model for a new GOP, saying: “I didn’t know he was still a Republican.”

Tuesday on Fox News, Cheney defended his outspokenness: “I don’t think we should just roll over when the new administration … accuses us of committing torture,” he said.Also on Tuesday, Cheney’s daughter Liz – a former senior State Department official – made the rounds on cable TV, defending her father and echoing his message.

She offered an explanation for her father’s new role as defender-in-chief: “One of the nice things about my dad being out of office is that he doesn’t need sign-off,” she said. “He is out there speaking out because he personally feels so strongly about these issues.”

The media love the new Cheney, who doesn’t mince words. “I’d go with Rush Limbaugh” over the more moderate Mr. Powell, Cheney told CBS’s Bob Schieffer, when asked which brand of Republican he prefers.

Democrats glad to hand him the mic

Democrats are thrilled. The former vice president left office deeply unpopular, and the more air time he fills, the more he steers conversation to the past and away from efforts by Republicans to reinvent themselves “Picking a fight with Powell? Is he daft?” asks Democratic strategist Peter Fenn.

In April, the CBS/New York Times poll found 19 percent of respondents viewed Cheney favorably. Powell had 54 percent favorability in October, the last time CBS/NYT asked about him. Powell endorsed Obama for president.

Even if Cheney’s approach to retirement doesn’t necessarily square with his party’s long-term agenda, some Republicans see little harm this early in the election cycle.

“I think Cheney makes a very powerful argument on behalf of their administration's policies and what he thinks is right,” says Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. “Many in the media like to demonize Cheney, but he has served our country well, and although in the short term [he] may be a PR problem … I think overall, [he] is helping shape the debate.”

In addition, future events could alter assessments of Cheney’s critique.

“If it appears that the Obama administration has made some big error on national security, at that point, Cheney’s criticism might not look so bad,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and a former Republican operative. “If Obama plays a flawless game, Republicans won’t have much to work with in any case.”

The Cheney effect

Cheney defenders argue that the former veep has already had an impact. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might not be taking so much grief over the question of what she knew about waterboarding and when she knew it had Cheney not focused so much attention on the issue. Cheney supporters also see the influence of the ex-veep’s arguments in Obama’s new opposition to the release of photos depicting abuse of detainees by US authorities overseas.

But Cheney can’t ride this horse forever.

“If he is still the most prominent voice in this debate three years from now, then that’s a big problem,” says Mr. Schnur.

Still, he adds, “if others do come forward to take up this line of argument, most people probably aren’t going to remember that it was Cheney carrying this banner for a few months back in 2009.”

So far, though, Cheney is showing no signs of retreat. On May 21, he will speak at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington on “keeping America safe.”

[Editor's note:

The photo caption in the original version misstated the television program on which Cheney appeared.

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