One is hard pressed to think of a more unlikely and more lopsided competition for public approval than a debate between Barack Obama and Dick Cheney. The president’s charisma and virtues as a public speaker are no secret. And whether it is entirely deserved or not, Cheney’s reputation as Washington’s prince of darkness is established in the public imagination of the republic. Obama’s easy popularity is matched only by Cheney’s lack of appeal.
And yet if the speeches the two gave this morning on national security and the record of the Bush administration are heard or read alongside each-other, there is no escaping the conclusion that the former vice president got the better of the current resident of the White House. Cheney’s speech was straightforward. He addressed the accusations that have been leveled at the record of the government he served and he calmly and methodically debunked them.
Cheney is right when he said of the “torture” debate, “we hear from some quarters nothing but feigned outrage based on a false narrative. In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists.”
Obama’s address was full of good sound bytes. But in terms of substance, it was nothing but moral preening, condescension and self-congratulation. As is his wont, Obama set up straw men and mowed them down with his attempt to cast himself as opposing those who think “anything goes” when he knows that there was no one in the previous administration who thought that. He went on about Guantanamo and interrogation techniques and made patently dishonest arguments about their failures, when he knows very well there were few. He decries the politicization of national security issues when it was he himself who helped promote this misleading debate. He contends that he knows the waterboarding of three terrorists didn’t help us protect the nation but refuses to disclose the memos that everyone knows prove the opposite. Moreover, much of his posturing is contradicted by his own decisions as “commander-in-chief” to continue most of the Bush administration’s policies.
The contrast between Cheney’s seriousness and Obama’s disingenuous rhetorical flights of fancy couldn’t be starker. In speaking out as he has, Cheney has emerged as virtually the only coherent voice of opposition to the Obama administration that the Republicans have produced in the last five months. This has brought about a mini-boomlet on the Right, of those urging Cheney to continue in this vein and to even consider a run for the presidency in 2012. I think this is highly unlikely if only because Cheney must know that making future elections a referendum on the presidency of George W. Bush would be a colossal mistake. But until the GOP can produce a figure of substance with both the communication skills and the gravitas to take on Obama, it may well be that Cheney will assume the leader’s role for the loyal opposition. Though it isn’t a job with much of a future, it must be admitted that on days like today, it certainly looks as if Dick Cheney is filling that role quite nicely.