by Ross Douthat
Watching Dick Cheney defend the Bush administration's interrogation policies, it's been hard to escape the impression that both the Republican Party and the country would be better off today if Cheney, rather than John McCain, had been a candidate for president in 2008.
Certainly Cheney himself seems to feel that way. Last week's Sean Hannity interview, all anti-Obama jabs and roundhouses, was the latest installment in the vice president's unexpected – and, to Republican politicians, distinctly unwelcome – transformation from election-season wallflower into high-profile spokesman for the conservative opposition. George W. Bush seems happy to be back in civilian life, but Cheney has taken the fight to the Obama White House like a man who wouldn't have minded campaigning for a third Bush-Cheney term.
Imagine for a moment that he'd had that chance. Imagine that he'd damned the poll numbers, broken his oft-repeated pledge that he had no presidential ambitions of his own, and shouldered his way into the race. Imagine that Republican primary voters, more favorably disposed than most Americans to Cheney and the administration he served, had rewarded him with the nomination.
At the very least, a Cheney-Obama contest would have clarified conservatism's present political predicament. In the wake of two straight drubbings at the polls, much of the American right has comforted itself with the idea that conservatives lost the country primarily because the Bush-era Republican Party spent too much money on social programs. And John McCain's defeat has been taken as the vindication of this premise.
We tried running the maverick reformer, the argument goes, and look what it got us. What Americans want is real conservatism, not some crypto-liberal imitation.
"Real conservatism," in this narrative, means a particular strain of right-wingery: a conservatism of supply-side economics and stress positions, uninterested in social policy and dismissive of libertarian qualms about the national-security state. And Dick Cheney happens to be its diamond-hard distillation. The former vice-president kept his distance from the Bush administration's attempts at domestic reform, and he had little time for the idealistic, religiously infused side of his boss's policy agenda. He was for tax cuts at home and pre-emptive warfare overseas; anything else he seemed to disdain as sentimentalism.
This is precisely the sort of conservatism that's ascendant in today's much-reduced Republican Party, from the talk radio dials to the party's grassroots. And a Cheney-for-President campaign would have been an instructive test of its political viability.
As a candidate, Cheney would have doubtless been as disciplined and ideologically consistent as McCain was feckless. In debates with Barack Obama, he would have been as cuttingly effective as he was in his encounters with Joe Lieberman and John Edwards in 2000 and 2004 respectively. And when he went down to a landslide loss, the conservative movement might – might! – have been jolted into the kind of rethinking that's necessary if it hopes to regain power.
If a Cheney defeat could have been good for the Republican Party; a Cheney campaign could have been good for the country. The former vice-president’s post-election attacks on Obama are bad form, of course, under the peculiar rules of Washington politesse. But they’re part of an argument about the means and ends of our interrogation policy that should have happened during the general election and didn't – because McCain wasn't a supporter of the Bush-era approach, and Obama didn’t see a percentage in harping on the topic.
He wasn't alone. A large swath of the political class wants to avoid the torture debate. The Obama administration backed into it last week, and obviously wants to back right out again.
But the argument isn't going away. It will be with us as long as the threat of terrorism endures. And where the Bush administration’s interrogation programs are concerned, we’ve heard too much to just "look forward," as the president would have us do. We need to hear more: What was done and who approved it, and what intelligence we really gleaned from it. Not so that we can prosecute – unless the Democratic Party has taken leave of its senses – but so that we can learn, and pass judgment, and struggle toward consensus.
Here Dick Cheney, prodded by the ironies of history into demanding greater disclosure about programs he once sought to keep completely secret, has an important role to play. He wants to defend his record; let him defend it. And let the country judge.
But better if this debate had happened during the campaign season. And better, perhaps, if Cheney himself had been there to have it out.