The good news is that J.C. Watts isn't dead. The bad news is that a guy who considered voting Democratic in 2008 is addressing the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. His chief criticism then was that the GOP has done a lousy job at courting the black community. Two years on, and looking onto an audience as white as a ream of typing paper, it's clear that things haven't improved much since then.
Which makes the party's precarious news cycles of late doubly painful. The GOP would like nothing more than to perform a Steelendectomy--that is, the complete removal of Michael Steele. His tenure has been like a two-year migraine for the Republican rank-and-file. One might be tempted to say that he's a double agent for the DNC, but having done such an appalling job as chairman, it's almost too obvious. The topless bondage club expense report situation would, under any other circumstance, be reason enough to oust an unpopular leader. But to do so would be to fire a high-profile minority--something in short supply in the GOP's big tent--which makes the Republican Party a formal practitioner of affirmative action.
Thursday night's speakers at the SRLC were a blast from the past. After a Yat-speak "hometown" warm-up by Mary Matalin (born and raised: Illinois. New Orleans resident: 2008-present), Liz Cheney took to the stage and proceeded to cut into President Obama's foreign policy, beseeching him to "stop apologizing for this great nation and start defending it," adding, "Someone should keep reminding this administration that foreign terrorists do not have constitutional rights."
Invocations of her father led to thunderous applause and such shouts from the crowd of thirty-five hundred as "Convince him to run!" Also warmly received was her recounting of her father's penchant for making headlines of late, calling it not a debate between Dick Cheney and Barack Obama, but "a constructive dialogue between a two-term vice president and a one-term president."
Indeed, contrary to this correspondent's expectations, it wasn't Ronald Reagan who dominated the evening, but George W. Bush. In an otherwise ambivalent speech, J.C. Watts got the most enthusiastic standing ovation of the night when he stated, "Some might think that George Bush had his shortcomings, but let me tell you friends, history is going to be kind to George W. Bush."
Liz Cheney blasted President Obama's recent treatment of Benjamin Netanyahu. Cheers went up when she announced that the Israeli prime minister wouldn't be attending the White House nuclear summit. She continued throwing red meat to the crowd, reminding them of the administration's capitulation to Russia on the missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and its "demeaning" treatment of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. With a note of well-delivered remorse, Cheney repeated a Middle Eastern adage, "It is more dangerous to be America's friend than it is to be our enemy."
Her demeanor and speaking style was textbook Cheney. Even and sober, but hardboiled in word and implication: "This administration is confused about who the enemy is."
But she wasn't. Attorney General Eric Holder was dismantled with relish over his vow to investigate interrogators over possible detainee abuses. "The intelligence officers who got terrorists to answer questions after 9/11 are patriots." She went on to skewer the Justice Department for hiring lawyers who represented enemy combatants imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. "The American people have a right to know if lawyers who defended terrorists are now responsible for making policy about terrorists."
Cheney was very well received in this very friendly audience, and it's not beyond imagination to see a Cabinet post for her in a future Republican administration.
J.C. Watts, meanwhile, followed with a rousing if empty speech on nothing in particular. If charges of "RINO" resulted from his non-non-endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008, he did little to change perceptions on Thursday. He rightfully declared that Republicans cannot wash their hands of the rampant spending of the past few years, but offered no criticism whatsoever of the Obama administration. He never even mentioned the president. The worst he said about the health care bill was that it didn't address health--that is to say, basic wellness and nutrition. He even cautiously crossed swords with the most fervent of the Tea Party movement, saying, "I would hope as we protest...we recognize that we have a responsibility and obligation to do it with Christian love." Wrapping up his address, he rattled off a few principles of conservatism--limited government and accountability and national defense--but did so as an afterthought, as if he suddenly realized he wasn't addressing a Sunday congregation but a political convention. Overall, he said very little, but charmed a crowd perhaps already swayed by--as Mary Matalin put it--the "daughter of Darth."
D.B. Grady is the author of Red Planet Noir.