Biden vs. Cheney: Who's the jerk?

Asked about Cheney's vicious attacks on Obama by CNN, Biden struck back -- and pundits spent the day debating Biden's decorum, not Cheney's.

Published April 9, 2009 10:12AM (EDT)

Vice President Biden gave a wide-ranging interview to CNN last night, but strangely the question pundits have been debating today is whether Biden should have hit back at his predecessor, Dick Cheney, who's said repeatedly that the Obama administration is making us "less safe."

There's been relatively little discussion of how abhorrent and unprecedented Cheney's attacks on President Obama (his cousin!) have been. Likewise, the last time Cheney attacked Obama, it was spokesman Robert Gibbs who was put on the media hot seat for lashing back at Darth Cheney. Let's remember: It was years before Bill Clinton or Al Gore criticized the Bush administration in any way, and Cheney's claim, right out of the gate, that Obama is making the nation "less safe" is the worst thing anyone can say about a new president. It's clear Cheney's gone rogue; President Bush has said he plans to keep his mouth shut and respect his successor, and he's done so.

Of course, Cheney went rogue a long time ago, running his own intelligence operation in the White House, shutting out Colin Powell and Condi Rice, and most recently, lobbying so hard to pardon his loyal lawbreaking aide Scooter Libby that former President Bush, in a rare bout of spinefulness, told him to zip it. Then Cheney made the rounds publicly complaining about Bush's failure to pardon Libby. That slap at his boss was itself outrageous, and deserved more attention than it got at the time. Cheney is truly a dangerous freak show.

But on MSNBC today, from Morning Joe Scarborough to Mike Barnicle filling in on "Hardball" tonight, the onus was on Biden for replying, not on Cheney for popping off. On "Hardball" I debated former Bush 41 Justice Department official David Rivkin on the overall issue of whether Cheney's right, and Obama's made us less safe -- Rivkin said yes; guess what I said -- and Barnicle kicked off our segment asking, "What's with the vice president, why is he saying all of these crazy things?" I honestly thought he was talking about Cheney, but it seems he was referring to Biden, as he let Rivkin tear into Biden for "looking backward" and attacking his predecessor.

It's worth noting that Biden didn't rent a room at the National Press Club and invite a crowd to watch him savage Cheney; Gloria Borger and Wolf Blitzer asked him about Cheney's remarks:

 BORGER: Former Vice President Cheney took a big swipe at your foreign policies, this administration's foreign policies. And he told John King of CNN recently that President Obama's actions, all over the world, have made us less safe. Was Dick Cheney out of line?

BIDEN: I don't know if he's out of line, but he was dead wrong. This administration -- the last administration left us in a weaker posture than we have been any time since World War II, less regarded in the world, stretched more thinly than we ever had been in the past, two wars under way, virtually no respect in entire parts of the world. And so we have been about the business of repairing and strengthening us. I guarantee you, we are safer today, our interests are more secure today, than they were any time during the eight years...

BORGER: So, we're more safe?

BIDEN: We are more safe. We're more secure. Our interests are more secure, not just at home, but around the world. We are rebuilding America's ability to lead.

Later, Biden said more in an exchange with Wolf Blitzer:

BLITZER: What are you doing differently as vice president as compared to Dick Cheney?

BIDEN: Well, I think the biggest thing we're doing is, I'm operating in concert with the president. There are not -- there are -- look, everybody talks about how powerful Cheney was. His power weakened America, in my view. Here's what I mean by that. What I mean by that was, there was a divided government. There was Cheney as his own sort of separate national security agency, and then there was the National Security Agency. There was Powell, who didn't agree with Cheney, and Cheney off with Rumsfeld. I mean, there was a divided government, a divided administration. The strength of this administration is that the president and I work in concert. We -- I am very straightforward in my views. I'm as strong -- I hold them as I strongly as I ever had, but they're done in the concert of one National Security Agency, a united national security team.

Everything Biden said was sensible and factual, and for the record, if he wanted to rent a room at the Press Club to say it, I think he's within his rights. Bullies like Cheney have been allowed to attack Democrats in the most scurrilous terms for far too long. David Rivkin continued the tradition today, insisting that Cheney's Obama critique was "mild and quite respectful" -- and all true. Rivkin is a big torture fan and believes that Obama's promises to close Guantánamo, eliminate torture and restrict surveillance will make us less safe, while his outreach to other countries is a softer goal that Rivkin magnanimously insisted is a lovely aim -- but has nothing to do with national security.

Of course, I disagreed. First of all, it's still amazing how unfamiliar mainstream journalists are with the debate going on in the liberal blogosphere over Obama's disappointing moves to continue Bush-Cheney secrecy policies, which makes it impossible to know if they're keeping promises on torture, detention and surveillance. I tried to bring that up, but Barnicle hushed me with a "civil liberties aside," which could go down in history as the MSM approach to the Bush administration. So I engaged Rivkin directly on the issue of whether Cheney's torture regime made us safer, arguing that a lot of tough military interrogators say torture doesn't work, and a lot of national security experts believe reaching out to the world, obeying the Geneva Conventions and the global rule of law can actually make us safer, by eliminating recruiting opportunities for al-Qaida and our other enemies and reinforcing an ethic of mutual protection among our allies.

Rivkin kept trying to set me and Biden up as kind of sweet, naive softies who want the world to like us; the point is that strong global alliances make us safer, it's not a popularity contest. Rivkin sneered and smiled condescendingly and mispronounced my name, the way these right-wing guys always do (though he was much more polite that Dick Armey), and, well, you can see it below. I'm proud of the job I did, but boy, another day, another really ludicrous set of premises for debate put forward by our mainstream media. Biden's the jerk, not Cheney? You go, Joe. We've got your back.


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By Joan Walsh

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