Cheney: Leader of the Opposition

Cheney, for good or ill

Time to end all the jokes on "who is the leader of the Republican Party."

It's been settled.

Thursday morning, President Obama delivered a speech on Guantanamo Bay and the war on terror.

Minutes after he finished, former Vice President Dick Cheney delivered his speech on the war on terror.

Like him or not -- agree with him or not -- but Cheney gives a much better "official response" to a presidential address than, well,  Bobby Jindal.

Taken together, the two speeches provided the country with an amazing moment. This wasn't measly political jibing of inconsequential things here. These were two professionals offering up a contrast of visions. Obama made the case for closing Guantanamo Bay so that America lives up to its principles. Cheney declared that Bush-era policies on interrogation and aggressive prosecution were legal and had kept the country safe. The speeches were philosophical and well-argued, even if the stakes were, literally, about life and death.

Democrats like to use Cheney's multiple appearances as a joke to undermine the GOP's lack of fresh faces, but there is a reality here that can't be ignored: until the rest of the party gets its act together, on security matters, Dick Cheney is the leader of the Republican Party. It's up to the Democrats to engage him on the substance of his views, rather than just trying to dismiss him as relic to whom no one is listening. Cheney isn't Rush Limbaugh. He's not interested in "entertaining" people and merely saying things to play to an audience. He believes that he is right on these issues -- and he doesn't care what other people think.

And this is good for the broader media as well. While the GOP insists that it's "in the tank" for Obama, the fact is media as an entity likes a real good story. Good stories require a narrative with an antagonist and a protagonist -- or "hero" and "villain," if you will. Cheney is a beguiling antagonist -- as far from Obama as you can imagine. That means that he will get the airtime to make his point -- and not just from Fox. 

Democrats trying to just dismiss him as a cartoon character is foolish -- and wrong too. And, oddly, Cheney's visibility has actually improved his poll numbers recently. And, whether because of -- or in spite of -- Cheney's criticisms, several of Obama's actual national security decisions have notably "adjusted" in contrast to his campaign promises.

Today's speeches raised the stakes on Guantanamo Bay and moving forward on the war on terror in the post-Bush era. But while Democrats might do well to actually engage Cheney on the merits of his critique, Republicans could also just deal with the fact that Cheney is about the best thing they have going for them as a person of substance -- and act accordingly. It's better to have a leader who has an argument -- controversial as it may be -- rather than be a listless party unable to make any philosophical responses. 

Robert A. George is a New York writer.  He blogs at Ragged Thots.  

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