Cheney: Lieberman good, democracy bad

The vice president crossed the line.

Published August 14, 2006 7:19PM (EDT)

A reader notes below that we may have been a little too quick in conflating Joe Lieberman with Dick Cheney this morning. He's right. As shameful as Lieberman's comments were last week -- he predicted that the "same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England" will be emboldened and "strike again" if the U.S. follows Ned Lamont's plan for Iraq -- Cheney's words were even worse. As the reader notes, Lieberman said that Lamont's plan would embolden the enemy; Cheney said that the simple act of voting for Lamont had already done so.

Cheney doesn't take questions often, at least not when somebody other than Brit Hume or Rush Limbaugh is doing the asking, so it was more than a little surprising that the vice president offered to "chat" -- his word -- with wire service reporters about the Democratic primary in Connecticut. Maybe Cheney decided to weigh in because the anti-Lieberman vote was such a strong anti-Bush, antiwar message -- OK, of course that's why he decided to weigh in -- but the vice president tried to spin things as always about the Democrats. "It's a perhaps unfortunate and significant development from the standpoint of the Democratic Party ... when they, in effect, purge a man like Joe Lieberman ... over the issue of Joe's support with respect to national efforts in the global war on terror," Cheney said.

Then Cheney got to the slanderous part. "The thing that's partly disturbing about it is the fact that the standpoint of our adversaries, if you will, in this conflict, and the al-Qaida types, they clearly are betting on the proposition that ultimately they can break the will of the American people in terms of our ability to stay in the fight and complete the task," he said. "And when we see the Democratic Party reject one of its own, a man they selected to be their vice presidential nominee just a few short years ago, it would seem to say a lot about the state the party is in today if that's becoming the dominant view of the Democratic Party, the basic, fundamental notion that somehow we can retreat behind our oceans and not be actively engaged in this conflict and be safe here at home, which clearly we know we won't -- we can't be."

Never mind the patent falsity of Cheney's statements: Democrats have, by and large, supported the Bush administration's global war on terror; it's the prosecution of the war in Iraq that many Democrats and a substantial majority of Americans find so dangerous and wrongheaded. What's striking is the underlying point: By the very act of voting -- by having a differing opinion and actually exercising a constitutional right in the hopes of furthering it -- Cheney says Democrats in Connecticut have emboldened the enemy.

Not so long ago, even Cheney might have seen this kind of talk for what it is. In a speech in December, the vice president tried to differentiate between "dishonest and reprehensible" attacks on the way the Bush administration led the country to war in Iraq and the "entirely legitimate discussion" about whether that war should end. Standing with Lamont on Iraq would seem to fall squarely in the latter category -- unless, of course, Cheney makes a distinction between simply having an opinion and having the audacity to actually do something about it: Calling for a redeployment of troops is "entirely legitimate" even if it's wrong, but voting for a candidate who calls for such a redeployment is nothing less than aiding and abetting al-Qaida.

In his column today, Dan Froomkin says that Cheney "may have crossed the line that separates legitimate political discourse from hysteria." He's not the only one who thinks so. Writing in the Hartford Courant over the weekend, Sen. Ted Kennedy said that Cheney has launched an attack "not just on Democrats, but on democracy itself."

That's right, and note when he did it: Not just on the morning after voters in Connecticut sent a clear message about the Bush administration's war in Iraq, but just hours before the announcement of arrests in an alleged plot to blow up U.S.-bound jetliners -- arrests British authorities apparently weren't ready to make until the United States pushed hard to make them happen sooner.

Coincidence? Maybe, but cynical sounds more like it. Of course, there's one other c-word possibility: crazy. As Froomkin notes, Washington Post congressional reporter Jonathan Weisman was asked in an online chat the other day to explain why Cheney's comments hadn't drawn more attention from the mainstream press. His "candid enough that Deborah Howell will be calling" response: "The vice president also said the insurgency in Iraq is in its death throes and that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators. I'm afraid to say his utterances are losing their news value."

Maybe Weisman's right, but it's shame if he is. With November ahead and 2008 coming after that, it's more important than ever for Americans to grapple with the words and the thoughts of their elected officials, even if it all seems like old news to the political reporters who cover them. In a democracy, we still have the right to do more than just ignore leaders who've gone off the deep end and taken us with them. Dick Cheney knows that, and it's exactly what he fears.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2006 Elections Dick Cheney Iraq Joe Lieberman Middle East War Room