Cheney and Biden duke it out: part of the job of the No. 2

Pugnacity was on display Sunday as former VP Cheney and current VP Biden argued over the Obama administration's handling of national security matters. It's what vice presidents do.

Left: William Plowman/NBC/AP, Right: Fred Watkins/ABC/AP
On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden (left) appeared from Vancouver, Canada, on 'Meet the Press' in Washington and Former Vice President Dick Cheney (right) is interviewed on ABC's 'This Week' in Washington.

Dick Cheney versus Joe Biden: Why did they go after each other Sunday like pro wrestlers shouting over the ref from different corners of the ring?

That's an easy one. That's the role of vice presidents – both current and former. It's expected. Pugnacity can be an asset for an administration's No. 2.

To start from the beginning, Mr. Cheney, the VP under George W. Bush, and Mr. Biden, current occupant of the VP mansion (it's on the Massachusetts Avenue grounds of the Naval Observatory), both appeared on Sunday morning news shows.

National security was the main area of contention. The Iraq war was "the right thing to do," said Cheney during an appearance on ABC's "This Week." "We got rid of one of the worst dictators of the 20th century."

Biden, on NBC's "Meet the Press," said he did not believe the war was worth it. "We took our eye off the ball, putting us in a much different and more dangerous place in Afghanistan."

The pair also differed sharply over the likelihood of another terrorist attack. Cheney took issue with Biden's assertion that a massive terrorist attack on US soil, similar to 9/11, is now unlikely.

"I think the biggest threat the United States faces today is the possibility of another 9/11 with a nuclear weapon or a biological agent of some kind," said Cheney.

Both of those assertions can be true, actually – it's possible for an event to be both unlikely and the biggest threat we face. But parsing aside, where did this fight come from?

Because that's their role. As sitting VP, Biden is especially subject to this rule. An administration's No. 2 is often deployed to say harsh things so that the president does not have to. The chief executive of the US generally floats above partisan conflict as much as possible, in an attempt to be, well, presidential. VPs are the channel for in-your-face attitude. That's the way it is on the campaign trail, where the running mate gets to give the tough speeches. That's the way it is for the winners in the White House.

Let's use another sports metaphor: hockey. The VP is the muscle guy used to protect the fast-skating sharpshooter. They're the ones who are supposed to drop gloves at the merest slight. (For a picture of what we mean, click here.)

Cheney, meanwhile, seems to be defending both his administration's record and himself. As an active participant in Bush-era policy formulation, he's got his own reputation to protect as well.

Who got the better of the face-off? We'll resort to our favorite journalistic dodge: This bears watching. Time will tell.


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