America's Surliest Pundit

Cheney just blasted Obama yet again, a running criticism unprecedented for a former VP. Conservative blogger and new Daily Beast columnist Reihan Salam on why he's fighting the wrong war.

04.22.09 8:26 AM ET

Ever since he last helicoptered from the White House lawn, former president George W. Bush has very graciously kept his mouth shut, in deference to his successor and also to Republicans who are scrambling to make their way in a post-Bush world. The same can’t be said of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who is rocking the cable-news circuit with his apocalyptic baritone, most recently in an interview with Sean Hannity that aired last night on Fox News. After spending most of the Bush presidency in undisclosed locations, Cheney has become America’s surliest pundit—an Andy Rooney with gravitas, armed with dark premonitions about a Chavez-Obama alliance to overthrow capitalism.

That’s a slight exaggeration, of course. But since leaving office Cheney really has adopted the take-no-prisoners tone of the talk-radio right. His macho snarl puts Hannity and even Rush to shame, and you have to wonder if Cheney’s been in the wrong line of work all these years. With disapproval ratings in the 60s, it’s hard to say that Cheney has a magnetic personality. What he does have, however, is an air of deadly seriousness. Last month, Cheney told CNN’s John King that President Obama has made choices that “will, in fact, raise the risk to the American people of another attack.” Whether or not you believe it, the words can’t help but put a catch in your throat. That’s one reason why President Obama felt the need to forcefully respond to Cheney’s remarks.

I’ve heard more than one Republican joke that Cheney is a Democratic sleeper agent. But in a sense, Cheney’s stinging rebukes could be understood as a testament to his patriotism.

Cheney’s secret weapon is his absolute confidence. In his March interview with King, for example, Cheney grudgingly acknowledged that the new administration faced serious economic challenges. But he brushed aside the notion that he might be partly responsible for these challenges by blaming Barney Frank and Chris Dodd for blocking Fannie Mae reform. An ungenerous soul would call this a non sequitur. Then again, it could be that Cheney knows that he’s made bad calls, but he thinks it’s wrong—that it’s weak—to say so out loud. That, after all, is why Cheney told Sean Hannity he found Obama’s eagerness to apologize for supposed American wrongdoing “disturbing”—it makes America’s president look weak and vulnerable.

Obamaphiles see Cheney as a faintly pathetic figure gracelessly mugging for the cameras, and hurting his own cause in the process. Indeed, I’ve heard more than one Republican joke that Cheney is a Democratic sleeper agent. But in a sense, Cheney’s stinging rebukes could be understood as a testament to his patriotism. He could, like his former boss, kick back and sip mint juleps while working on his memoirs. Instead, he’s willing to take the hit to his reputation to warn against what he sees as serious threats to American security.

In a world of cowards and goons, Cheney is, in his own mind at least, a man of absolute integrity who is always willing to tell the harshest, ugliest truths. When Sean Hannity asked the former vice president to share his thoughts on “the issue of interrogation,” Cheney essentially dared the Obama White House to declassify information on whether “enhanced interrogation techniques” yielded valuable intelligence. The idea is that the whole truth will vindicate the Bush White House. In a strange and roundabout way, Cheney could find himself allied with the left-wing critics who are pressing President Obama to form a Truth Commission.

I’d like the truth about something else. Since leaving the White House, Cheney has focused almost exclusively on Guantánamo Bay and coercive interrogations. These are vitally important issues, but there is another vitally important issue that the former vice president hardly ever mentions, at least not now. Shortly after President Bush’s first inauguration, Dick Cheney was put in charge of a task force dedicated to solving America’s energy crisis. Rolling blackouts in California dominated the front pages back then, and there was a keen sense that our electricity grid was about to fail us. Cheney did put together a task force—a rather secretive task force—and he made a number of recommendations, which focused on domestic oil and gas exploration and a proposed expansion of nuclear power. But after 9/11, the plan faded into the background. It didn’t fade away because we solved the energy crisis. If anything, the situation is worse now than it was then. So why exactly did Cheney drop the ball?

Some argue that the Bush White House stopped talking about the energy crisis because an emphasis on the subject would imply that we were invading Iraq for its oil reserves, and that would be awkward. I can’t say. All I know is that as soon as the economy recovers, oil prices will skyrocket and America will be dealt a crippling blow—one that will endanger our ability to defend ourselves. Thus far, the Obama administration has given no indication that it appreciates the gravity of the energy shortage to come. If the financial crisis plays to Democratic strengths (pro-regulation, anti-greed), the energy crisis should play to Republican strengths (pro-nuke, pro-drilling). Rather than fight the last war, Cheney should be rallying the troops to win the next one.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at The America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.