The former vice president, in a May 10th interview with Bob Schieffer on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” a freewheeling inquiry of Cheney in his new role as party spokesman by default.
Cheney took the occasion to double down on the partisan reflexes of the moment when Schieffer asked him whether former Secretary of State Colin Powell or talk-radio Doberman Rush Limbaugh were better appointed to be viewed as central to the future of the GOP.
"If I had to choose in terms of being a Republican, I'd go with Rush Limbaugh," he said. "My take on it was Colin had already left the party. I didn't know he was still a Republican."
Schieffer, his newsman’s spider-sense tingling, asked Cheney if he really thought Powell was "not a Republican."
"I just noted he endorsed the Democratic candidate for president this time, Barack Obama," Cheney said. "I assumed that that is some indication of his loyalty and his interest."
It’s well known that the Republican leadership wasn’t happy with Powell’s endorsement of Obama for the presidency. But while the movement conservatives like Limbaugh have called one of the most celebrated military men since Eisenhower everything but a child of God, mainstream conservatives recognize Powell’s value to the GOP as proof of its ability to redefine itself.
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It was with this in mind that Powell, patient and methodical as ever, responded to Cheney’s right-hand lead with a solid uppercut, last Sunday, on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Powell challenged Cheney on the legacy of the Bush administration both were a part of, saying that Republicans should not kowtow to "diktats that come from the right wing."
Responding to Limbaugh's calls for Powell to exit the GOP, a la defector Arlen Specter, Powell said, "Rush will not get his wish. And Mr. Cheney was misinformed. I am still a Republican."
Powell soundly took issue with Cheney over such war-related issues as the Guantánamo Bay prison, whose continued operation Cheney steadfastly supports.
"Mr. Cheney is not only disagreeing with President Obama's policy," Powell said. "He's disagreeing with President [George W.] Bush's policy. President Bush stated repeatedly to international audiences and to the country that he wanted to close Guantánamo. The problem he had was he couldn't get all the pieces together."
Ever the political shapeshifter (and maybe realizing he’d gone too far with the centrist conservatives that form more of a backbone of the party than the ideologues do), Cheney pivoted. In an interview with CNBC's Larry Kudlow, he said Powell is welcome back into the party and that Republicans would be "happy to have him."
KUDLOW: You kind of took a shot at General Colin Powell the other day, said you didn't know he was still a member of the Republican Party. He responded to you by saying that you were mistaken. He is a member of the Republican Party, and he regards himself a, quote, "Jack Kemp Republican," end quote. Could you react to what Mr. Powell is saying?
CHENEY: Well, we're happy to have General Powell in the Republican Party. I was asked a question about a dispute he was having, I think, with Rush Limbaugh, and I expressed the consent, the notion I had that he had already left since he endorsed Barack Obama for president. But I meant no offense to my former colleague. I wasn't seeking to rearrange his political identity.
KUDLOW: So you welcome him back into the party.
CHENEY: We're in the mode where we welcome everybody to the party.
Nothing like the drunk at a garden party inviting the guests to feel “welcome.”
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We’re beginning to see the first hint of a blowback against Cheney, a reaction from (for now) more principled, less ideologically-animated Republicans pushing back against Cheney’s increasingly inventive narrative of the Bush years and his role in them.
Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post reported:
Lawrence Eagleburger mocked Dick Cheney on Tuesday at a Brookings Institute forum, saying that the former vice president, whom he dubbed "benighted," has long exaggerated his position as a partisan in favor of removing Saddam Hussein from power during the first Gulf War. …
Eagleburger, a former secretary of state, is the highest-ranking Republican to challenge him.
"The arguments that were made later by some of the benighted people--oh, never mind. I will just say screaming and yelling about how the president should have gone after Saddam at that time were only made once it was a fairly clear that he could have done so. If he had done so it would have been taking the advice of certain people who became vice presidents later on," said Eagleburger.
Eagleburger’s shot came not long after Tom Ridge, former Pennysylvania governor and Homeland Security secretary, said on CNN that he disagreed with Cheney that the nation was less safe because of Obama's national-security policies. Talking to John King on Sunday, Ridge also said that the former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast could be "shrill" and uses language in a way "that offend[s] very many."
"Rush Limbaugh has an audience of 20 million people. A lot of people listen daily to him and live by every word. But words mean things and how you use words is very important," Ridge, Bush said on CNN's “State of The Union.”
“It does get the base all fired up and he's got a strong following," he said. "But personally, if he would listen to me and I doubt if he would, the notion is express yourself but let's respect others opinions and let's not be divisive.”
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This has been building for months. Rep. John Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) told The Hill.com back in March:
“He became so unpopular while he was in the White House that it would probably be better for us politically if he wouldn’t be so public ... But he has the right to speak out since he’s a private citizen.”
As the GOP experiences an unprecedented existential crisis — the proof of which is obvious in the fact that the question of whether Powell or Limbaugh signified the party’s future was asked in the first place — these voices of relative reason may be what’s needed to begin the process of rescuing the Republican party from itself.
They’re expressing the hope, faint though it may be, that Dick Cheney might do them and the party he purports to embrace the huge favor of returning to the secret undisclosed location he dwelled in for much of the last eight years.
Image credits: Cheney: White House (public domain).