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As Cheney Seizes Spotlight, Many Republicans Wince

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009

As vice president, Richard B. Cheney famously spent much of the past eight years in undisclosed locations and offering private advice to President George W. Bush. But past was not prologue.

Today Cheney is the most visible -- and controversial -- critic of President Obama's national security policies and, to the alarm of many people in the Republican Party, the most forceful and uncompromising defender of the Bush administration's record. His running argument with the new administration has spawned a noisy side debate all its own: By leading the criticism, is Cheney doing more harm than good to the causes he has taken up and to the political well-being of his party?

His defenders believe he has sparked a discussion of vital importance to the safety of the country, and they hold up Obama's reversal of a decision to release photos of detainee abuse as a sign that Cheney is having an effect. But there is a potential political price that his party may pay in having one of the highest officials in an administration repudiated in the last election continue to argue his case long after the voters have rendered their decision.

Cheney entered the arena this winter in a politically weak position after that election. His personal favorability ratings were and are still low. A Gallup poll in late March found that 30 percent of respondents gave him a favorable rating, while 63 percent rated him unfavorably.

That is why his high-profile defense of controversial Bush administration policies has caused queasiness among Republican political strategists. But Cheney remains powerful enough that most of his GOP critics are not willing to take him on in public. "The fact that most people want to talk [without attribution] shows what a problem it continues to be," said one Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid. "Cheney continues to be a force among many members of our base, and while he is entirely unhelpful, no one has the standing to show him the door."

What drives a man who stayed out of the spotlight as vice president, who passed up an opportunity to run for the White House in his own right in 2008, to emerge in such a prominent role after the election?

Mary Matalin, who was a spokeswoman for Cheney during the early years of the Bush presidency, believes her former boss is motivated mainly by his principles. Had Obama not moved so precipitously to undo the Bush policies about which he feels so strongly, she believes, Cheney would have held his fire.

"If Barack Obama had come in and done what he said he was going to do and look at the stuff and see what is working, then Cheney would have continued to do what he was doing -- working on memoirs, finishing his house," she said. "He's got a good life. He's got stuff going on. He doesn't care about being on TV. There's no more politics there. He's not settling any scores. He just wants people to understand."

"This isn't about partisan politics, it's about what's right for the country," said Liz Cheney, the former vice president's daughter and a former State Department official. "Every American, whether you're a Republican, Democrat or independent, would agree that before critical decisions are made about national security of the nation, we ought to have a full and fair debate."

Cheney's daughter was among those who pointed to yesterday's White House reversal on the detainee photos as evidence that a vocal, public debate over the new administration's policies can make a difference.

Another GOP strategist, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, pointed out the conundrum for Republicans over the former vice president's current role. "Even if he's right, he's absolutely the wrong messenger," this strategist said. His main worry, he added, is that Cheney keeps the public focused on the past, rather than the future. "We want Bush to be a very distant memory in the next election. The more Cheney is on the front burner, the more difficult it's going to be."

"He's perfectly entitled to make his case, and given that Dick Cheney is as popular as Britney Spears at a Sunday school teacher convention, we hope he continues to be the face of the Republican Party," said Hari Sevugan, national press secretary for the Democratic National Committee. "His continued presence reminds people that the GOP is unwilling to put forward new ideas or leadership, and so long as he continues to be the voice of the Republican cause, he ensures that the Republican Party will remain the party of the past."

Liz Cheney strongly disagreed with the claim that her father's vocal defense of Bush administration policies has caused significant unrest within the GOP. She said he has received phone calls, e-mails and letters from people around the country, from officials in government and from members of the military and their families, thanking him for standing up and speaking out. "He's got hundreds of people coming to him saying, 'Please keep doing what you're doing,' " she said.

Since leaving the White House in January, Cheney has accused Obama of making the country less safe, disagreed with orders to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, defended the Bush administration's harsh interrogation techniques and called for a public airing of classified information on the controversial program. On Sunday, he said he would pick Rush Limbaugh over former secretary of state Colin L. Powell as a model for the Republican Party and virtually wrote his onetime colleague out of the GOP.

Cheney has made clear that part of his motivation is to defend against possible legal action against Bush officials who authorized or carried out the controversial interrogation policies. He recently told Stephen F. Hayes of the Weekly Standard that he remembers how, during the Iran-contra scandal in the Reagan administration, senior officials often ran for cover, leaving "the little guys out to dry." He said he is determined to defend those people now. "I don't know whether anybody else will, but I sure as hell will," he told Hayes.

Cheney has filled a vacuum within the Republican Party at a time when there are few other leaders who can command such attention. Bush has chosen to stay silent during his first months out of office, as have some other high-ranking members of his administration.

Republicans who defend Cheney take issue with the argument that it is inappropriate for a former vice president to challenge an incumbent administration. They point to former vice president Al Gore, who took on Bush over the war in Iraq, and to former president Jimmy Carter, who has repeatedly challenged Republican presidents.

Rarely has an official from one administration moved so quickly and aggressively to criticize a new president. Most vice presidents in the past century have sought the White House as presidential candidates, putting themselves before the country and accepting the judgment of the voters. Those who were defeated went quietly to the sidelines, at least for some time.

Matalin said she believes that Cheney does not buy the argument that his outspoken critique of the administration will have long-term implications for the GOP. He has been in politics long enough, she said, to remember when the Republican Party was on its back, only to rebound and prosper. "He says he's been through several of these cycles where the only thing that brings you back is to stand on your principles and apply those principles to the issues of the day."

But she added that Cheney is "not trying to be the party spokesman. It's not political to him. It's a policy thing, and you cannot deny that the debate is engaged and engaged on principle."

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