If the leaders of the Republican party (whoever they are) had any common sense, they would send emissaries to Dick Cheney and urge the former vice president to stay off the Sunday talk shows, perhaps by voluntarily locking himself in a secret undisclosed location.
The GOP is struggling to find its voice and point forward into the future - yet here's the singularly unpopular vice president of a singularly unpopular Republican administration, surfacing repeatedly on TV, dredging up the ignominious past with the intention of defending it. Worse yet for the party, he seems determined to drive away the middle-of-the-road swing voters whom the party so desperately needs.
Consider this telling exchange yesterday, on CBS' Face the Nation. It's self explanatory.
Host Bob Schieffer: Rush Limbaugh said the other day that the party would probably be better off if Colin Powell left and just became a Democrat. Colin Powell said Republicans would be better off if they didn't have Rush Limbaugh out speaking for them. Where do you come down?
Cheney: Well, if I had to choose in terms of being a Republican, I'd go with Rush Limbaugh.
There you have it, the kind of answer guaranteed to alienate the middle of the American electorate. But the problem with Cheney is not merely that he's a retro right-wing figure at a time when the GOP needs new faces to carry the message of outreach. The biggest problem is that Cheney has no credibility anymore. At this point, it's a mystery why anybody outside the conservative base would want to indulge anything he says. (It's also a mystery why CBS, or the other networks, keep inviting him on the air, but that's another issue.)
Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I would suggest that if a politician plays a pivotal role in luring America into a ruinous war of choice, and does so by repeatedly uttering serious falsehoods on national television, then that politician forfeits the right to be taken seriously in the future.
Cheney's basic pitch these days is that the Bush torture policies helped keep us safe, and that President Obama, by reversing those policies, is making us unsafe. He said it all again yesterday, claiming that the "enhanced" interrogations yielded hard information that helped America stop attacks; not surprisingly, his certitude is seriously undercut by a 2004 CIA inspector general's report (soon to be declassified), which stated that "it is difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations have provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks."
Naturally, by this point we expect that every Cheney assertion will be substantively challenged. But here's the bottom line: Unless he agrees to be questioned under oath on Capitol Hill, why bother paying attention to his assertions? Since his track record for truth is already so abysmal - we will be "greeted as liberators" in Iraq (2003); the anti-American insurgency is in its "last throes" (2005) - why should we take it on faith yet again that he has the monopoly on wisdom?
In terms of Cheney's credibility, this story alone should have been the deal-breaker:
On Dec. 9, 2001 - less than three months after 9/11, and at the dawn of the Bush administration PR campaign for an invasion of Iraq - Cheney surfaced on Meet the Press, where he waved a smoking gun that purportedly linked Saddam Hussein to 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta. Referring to Atta, the vice president stated: "It's been pretty well confirmed that he did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia last April, several months before the attack."
Pretty well confirmed? In reality, Cheney was floating a specious tip that had been picked up from Czech officials; at the time that Cheney on NBC making it sound like a done deal, U.S. intelligence was unable to confirm it. And by April 2002, the tip was basically dead; as Newsweek reported that month, "the Czechs quietly acknowledged that they may have been mistaken about the whole thing. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials now believe that Atta wasn't even in Prague at the time the Czechs claimed."
But that didn't matter to Cheney. On Sept. 8, 2002, five months after the Newsweek report, Cheney was back on Meet the Press, floating the Atta story yet again: "There has been reporting that suggests, of course, Mohamed Atta, who was the lead hijacker, did apparently travel to Prague on a number of occasions. And on at least one occasion we have reporting that places him in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official a few months before the attack on the World Trade Center...It's credible."
Fast forward to June 2004, and the published conclusions of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission. Having checked out the Atta story, the commission stated: "We have examined the allegation that Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague on April 9 (2001). Based on the evidence available - including investigation by Czech and U.S. officials, plus detainee reporting - we do not believe that such a meeting occurred."
Cheney surfaced for a CBS interview, in the wake of the 9/11 Commission findings. On June 17, he was basically asked to explain himself - specifically, why he had repeatedly hawked the unconfirmed Atta story. Here comes the good part.
Q: Let's get to Mohamed Atta for a minute...You have said in the past that it was, quote, "pretty well confirmed."
Cheney: No, I never said that.
Cheney: I never said that...Absolutely not.
See the credibility problem? First he hypes a story that he either knew to be false, or clearly had reason to believe might be false - and then, after he gets busted by the 9/11 Commission, he lies about his earlier falsehood, claiming he never even said what video captured him saying.
Which brings me full circle, to Cheney's stated preference for Rush Limbaugh. That's no surprise, given their shared affinity for the rightward fringe. But I think there's something else bonding these two Republican spokesmen. Here's Limbaugh on the air - June 17, 2004 - describing one particular conclusion in the 9/11 Commission report:
The report said that Mohamed Atta did meet with an Iraqi Intelligence Agency, or agent, in Prague, on April 9 of 2001. We've known this for a long time.
The precise opposite of what the report concluded.