Inside the mind of Dick Cheney

The former vice president has to know Democrats love having a national security argument with him, but he keeps slamming President Obama anyway.

Published May 11, 2009 1:30PM (EDT)

Who can even begin to guess at what's motivating former Vice President Dick Cheney to continue to go on all the Sunday shows in order to defend waterboarding and slam the Obama administration? By this point, he has to know he's not exactly a popular man (he even joked about that on Sunday), and that Democrats get down on their knees and thank God every time he's on television.

So what is it? Maybe he's convinced that ultimately his argument is a political winner, no matter who's making it. Maybe he's just trying to defend his legacy -- and former President Bush's -- at all costs. Maybe he doesn't mind hurting his fellow Republicans, who certainly didn't mind taking shots at the previous administration once its approval numbers went south. Or maybe, as he seemed to show in a Sunday interview with CBS' Bob Schieffer, he's just not all that great of a political mind.

In response to a question from Schieffer about how the Republican Party can broaden its appeal and get moderates back in the fold, Cheney said, "[T]he suggestion our Democratic friends always make is somehow, you know, if you Republicans were just more like Democrats, you'd win elections. Well, I don't buy that. I think we win elections when we have good solid conservative principles to run upon and base our policies on those principles."

Then, asked to choose between two men who'd fought recently over the direction of the GOP, radio host Rush Limbaugh and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Cheney responded, "Well, if I had to choose in terms of being a Republican, I'd go with Rush Limbaugh, I think. I think my take on it was Colin had already left the party. I didn't know he was still a Republican... I just noted he endorsed the Democratic candidate for president this time, Barack Obama. I assumed that that is some indication of his loyalty and his interest."

In some sense, this isn't all that surprising, and seems personal. Cheney was always affiliated with the faction in the Bush administration led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who clashed with Powell, so there may be some animosity behind this answer. But that's commonplace in politics, and for the most part people manage to swallow their own personal feelings at the altar of larger political realities. The political reality here, clearly, is that a GOP made up of Powells would appeal to a far broader audience than one made up of Limbaughs.

The rest of the interview was largely a repeat of the former vice president's criticism of the Obama administration, which he says has made the U.S. less safe. (Most Americans disagree with him on this point.) As usual, his words were pretty harsh, even caustic -- one of the reasons Democrats are glad they're having this argument with him. Responding to a question from Schieffer about whether torture had actually made the U.S. less safe, for example, Cheney said, "Well, then you'd have to say that, in effect, we're prepared to sacrifice American lives rather than run an intelligent interrogation program that would provide us the information we need to protect America."

There was one new bit of information from Cheney, though, an admission of something that was basically known already, but is still significant: Bush personally approved the CIA's interrogation methods.

"I certainly, yes, have every reason to believe he knew -- he knew a great deal about the program. He basically authorized it. I mean, this was a presidential-level decision. And the decision went to the president. He signed off on it," Cheney said.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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