During the early part of this decade, Dick Cheney redefined the role of vice-president as he took on unprecedentedly large amounts of responsibility, particularly with regard to foreign policy. Today, Cheney seems to be redefining life after the vice-presidency. In the past vice-presidents, in some cases after unsuccessfully seeking the presidency, either took on a position as an elder statesperson in their respective party, like Al Gore or Walter Mondale, or relatively quietly retired and joined corporate boards like Dan Quayle. The Cheney model for the post-vice presidency seems to be to become the party's lead attack dog. It is difficult to fathom why Cheney has chosen to do this, but supporters of President Obama should not be ungrateful.
One of the major concerns many supporters of President Obama had at the beginning of his term was that Obama would almost certainly not be able to solve the myriad problems he inherited from the Bush administration; and over time people would begin to blame Obama for what had been the failings of the Bush administration. In other words, people would begin to hold Obama responsible for not solving Bush's mess quickly enough while forgetting just how the big that mess was when Obama came became president. As the early, heady days of the Obama administration, become memories, and the weeks turn into months, it would be only natural for voters to begin to see the problems as increasingly belonging to Obama.
One can easily imagine Obama's top political aides wrestling with the problem of how to remind voters of how bad things were, and how nasty, incompetent and divisive the previous administration was, without the White House being seen as passing the buck and laying the blame on its predecessor. In a best case scenario, a prominent Bush era official, perhaps somebody trying to salvage their own political future, would position him or herself as the chief critic of the Obama administration, thus inadvertently serving as a constant reminder to voters of the previous administration.
Obama didn't get lucky and have this best case scenario. He got even luckier and got Dick Cheney. It is unlikely that even in David Axelrod or Rahm Emanuel's most hopeful moments during the transition, they thought that well past the first hundred days of his presidency Barack Obama would still be able to use Dick Cheney as a foil.
Cheney is not just any former Bush official. He is, of course the former vice-president, but more importantly he is even less popular than President Bush was and viewed as closely associated with all of the negatives of the Bush administration and with none of the positives, whatever those might have been, of President Bush. Cheney is nastier, more vituperative, more vengeful and possesses more of a tin ear for politics than almost anybody in public life today. He is a walking and, almost constantly, talking reminder of why, by the time they left office, almost three quarters of Americans disapproved of the Bush administration
Cheney is also continues to be wedded to the worst of the Bush years. The excesses of the War on Terror from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, the haze of corruption and malfeasance surrounding Halliburton and other security contractors and the hostility around any regulation or government intervention in the finance sector are all closely connected to Dick Cheney. Cheney does little to change this perception with his unapologetic defense, which continues to this day, of Bush era policy on most of these issues. He stubbornly refuses not only to recognize the mistakes his administration made, but continues to cling to the most offensive elements of the Bush presidency.
Now that Rush Limbaugh has offered to move aside as the titular leader of the Republican Party, Dick Cheney appears to be stepping into a vacuum in the Republican leadership that sends the precise backward looking message that is most destructive to that party.
Cheney's presence on the current political scene seamlessly blends unpopular and unsuccessful policy approaches with an unpleasant demeanor in a way that amounts to an enormous political gift to an already extremely popular president. Every smirk and hostile aside from the former Vice-President makes President Obama's job just a little bit easier. As long as Cheney continues to loudly, and bellicosely defend the previous administration, the American people will not forget just how bad things were when Bush was in office. The belligerence, accusations that any disagreement over any aspect of the Global War on Terror was at best undermining our safety and at worst close to treason, unwillingness to question the efficacy of any of Bush policy and overall hostility towards questioning and debate which continue to characterize Cheney's public statements serve as almost daily reminders to the American people of why they were so ready for a change last November.