The Cheney Irony

After Dick Cheney attacked President Obama yet again, James Fallows noted the ex-VP's behavior was mysterious given the magnanimity he showed Jimmy Carter's incoming team in 1976. Cheney's behavior is not only slightly mysterious, but also ironic given the reason he was chosen as George W. Bush's running mate ten years ago.

The reason Bush supposedly wanted a man with no presidential ambitions of his own to be No. 2 was because the president wouldn't have to pull punches while pursuing his agenda for fear that some moves would endanger a Cheney-for-president campaign. Ironically, this hasn't prevented Cheney from becoming a quasi-successor of Bush, or more precisely, of the Bush legacy.

It has been Cheney who is mostly writing the postscript to the Bush administration's chapters by dominating the national security debate on the right -- from torture, to terrorist trials, and now Afghanistan. Common sense would dictate that Cheney would find it hard to attract attention given he's unpopular and out of office -- to say nothing of his record of avoiding the bright lights. Why then all the efforts to be so public now?

An episode at the end of his time in the White House provides a clue. In 2008, Cheney and Bush argued over giving a pardon to Cheney's former chief of staff, who was convicted of obstructing the Valerie Plame-CIA leak investigation. The Scooter Libby affair is quintessential to understanding Cheney's current role as Bush's defender.

"As a Cheney confidant puts it," Time reported, "the Vice President believed he and the President could claim the war on terrorism as his [Bush's] greatest legacy if they defended at all costs the men and women who fought in the trenches."

This is why Cheney fights. The former vice president feels compelled to defend his and Bush's decisions against the Obama administration's efforts to undo them. (Cheney probably sees Obama's date for withdrawal from Afghanistan as ruining an otherwise Bush-like move of surging soldiers into the country.) Battling Obama is precisely what Candidate Cheney would have done on the campaign trail last year if he had run for president. Cheney's desire to keep fighting the political side of the war on terror has turned him into a man who seeks a public role from one who used to eschew the limelight.

If Cheney would have sought higher office and lost we might not have heard so much from him recently. Cheney's legacy and policies would have been rebuked by a majority of voters four years after a majority of voters returned him to office. However, Cheney doesn't care much for the public's opinion of him. Several years ago he was asked what he thought of a poll showing two-thirds of Americans said the Iraq war wasn't worth fighting. "So?" he shot back. Enough said. 

It's difficult to judge what effect he's had with the public on defense matters, but Cheney is at least guaranteeing that America hears the counterpoints to Obama's agenda that would receive less attention coming from Republicans in Congress. The GOP has no uncontested national leader, and Cheney fits the bill on defense issues -- so much so that he's the only figure on the right who can eclipse Sarah Palin occasionally.

This is a strange episode in American politics. An unpopular, electorally un-ambitious vice president has become the face of his former administration and occasionally his party. One wonders what Bush makes of this, given the reason he brought Cheney back into politics in the first place.

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Justin Miller was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 to 2011. He is now the homepage editor at New York magazine. More

Justin Miller was a associate editor at The Atlantic. Previously he was an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics, a political reporter in Ohio, and a freelance journalist.

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