The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dick Cheney advises House GOP on foreign policy, as some Republicans ignore him

Cheney was on Capitol Hill Tuesday. (AP Photo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Miranda Grubbs, File)

The young and dovish libertarians sat silently on Tuesday morning as former vice president Dick Cheney addressed a gathering of House Republicans on Capitol Hill.

When Cheney finished his remarks on foreign policy and took questions, they eyed the door and declined to challenge him.

As he left the meeting, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a non-interventionist, winced when he was asked about Cheney’s counsel on how to deal with the rise of an Islamic State in parts of Iraq and Syria.

“I don’t want to comment,” Massie said. “He was nice enough to come over and talk to the conference.”

Seconds later, as the questions continued, Massie, 43, sighed and offered that the “primary thrust” of Cheney’s pitch was about increasing the U.S. defense budget, and that he disagreed.

“We need to spend to less money on everything,” Massie said.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), 34, another non-interventionist, took a similar line as he walked out. Initially curt, he broke into a smile when he was asked whether Republicans should stop listening to Cheney.

“Yeah,” he replied. “His worldview is that we should be in countries around the world and have armed forces everywhere -- and most Republicans don’t agree with that.”

But for these conservatives who were swept into Congress in recent years by tea party activists — those who were twenty-somethings during George W. Bush's presidency — the former veep’s visit and his rapturous reception represented a new low in a summer full of disquieting turns.

Instead of seeing their influence rise this year and moving the GOP away from its hawkishness, they looked on Tuesday on as Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, gave Cheney a warm introduction and others lathered praise on him.

Over in the Senate, even their chief ally, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), has begun to sound more sympathetic to an interventionist policy, pledging to "destroy ISIS militarily."

Amash and Massie, by avoiding a back-and-forth with Cheney in front of their colleagues, underscored the difficult political terrain they face within their own party as they try to change it. Younger grassroots types may increasingly be with them, and averse to the Bush-era foreign policy approach, but most GOP lawmakers remain wary of shifting their traditional values on foreign policy.

A day before President Obama addresses the nation on his plan for dealing with the crisis in Iraq and Syria, a vast majority of the more than 100 House Republicans who streamed out of the breakfast session called for aggressive action to be taken, and cast Cheney as the party’s wise man.

“He reiterated to us the importance of the Republican Party standing strong for a strong national defense,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a former Air Force pilot. “It was a great message and something we needed to hear. Hopefully it sticks with some of my colleagues who have had this creep toward isolationism.”

"He is a man of great gravitas and poise," said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) "He is not a light individual. He tells it like it is, especially focused on national security."

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) added that Cheney called Obama a "weak" leader with little heft on the world stage.

Other members called Cheney's presentation a "world tour," delivered in his signature grumble-growl, combining a harsh critique of the White House's strategy with his own thoughts on the importance of swiftly taking out the Islamic State's leaders.

One senior House Republican aide called it a "prelude" to Cheney's Wednesday speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, where he is expected to weigh in on President Obama's handling of Middle East policy.

"Oh, he's back, he clearly loves being back, and we don't mind having him," the aide said, who requested anonymity to speak freely. "Not one hostile question, and I think that says a lot."

Cheney was not seen by reporters. He entered and exited the tony Capitol Hill Club through an undisclosed side entrance, escaping the crowd of camera-toting journalists camped on First Street SE near humming black SUVs.

Even unspotted, his presence was felt.

Amash, a prolific user of Twitter, avoided saying much about Cheney later, other than reposting a reporter's message about his disagreement with Cheney's perspective. Massie didn't tweet about Cheney at all.

At least for the moment, Cheney remains popular with the rank-and-file Republicans who are eager to stick with the GOP's usual posture and avoid an intra-party tussle on U.S. foreign policy so close to the midterm elections.

And with Rand Paul, preparing for a presidential run, shying away from being an outspoken non-internventionist, there are few voices with the stature to quarrel or kick off the kind of debate that Cheney skeptics would like to see.

“The fact that Rand Paul is coming out so strongly for action is important, as is Ted Cruz calling for us to bomb them back to the Stone Age. There is a different tone and the ground has shifted," said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). "Our members are hawkish, or at least reluctantly realize that something has to be done. To the extent there is a debate in our party, it’s going to be on whether congressional approval is required."

Massie and Amash, disappointed, know it.