Among the first polls of 2009 was a postmortem of the Bush administration. On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration, pollsters asked where Americans stood on the outgoing president and his deputy, Dick Cheney.
With an approval rating of 22 percent, Bush was the least popular president in Gallup’s seven-decade history of presidential polling. Americans no longer liked him. Yet he was still ahead of Cheney. The public loathed the vice president, who helped engineer the war in Iraq as well as the torture programs at U.S.-controlled prisons for captured enemies. At 13 percent approval, Cheney was the most unpopular politician in the country and a virtual pariah in public life.
But time heals unpopularity, and six years later, both Bush and Cheney are back on the national stage. But where the former president is low-key—at most, Bush is giving private speeches and advising his brother’s bid for the Republican nomination—the former vice president is unrestrained. Working with his daughter Liz Cheney through their political action committee, Keep America Safe, Cheney aims for influence. His “overarching message,” notes the Wall Street Journal, “is that the U.S. needs to assert itself more on the world stage. ‘We thought, looking forward to 2016, it was very important to make sure those issues were front and center in the campaign,’ he said.”
It’s great news for Cheney, then, that he won’t have to work hard. Far from marginal, Bush and Cheney’s ideas and language are part of the Republican bloodstream, embraced by presidential candidates, pushed by elected officials, and on the agenda if Republicans win in 2016.
To that point, the former vice president’s influence is most evident in the rhetoric of the Republican field. Cheney never spoke with caveats. His language was clear, direct, and meant to scare the public into action. “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” he declared during the runup to the Iraq war. “There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, against us.” Likewise, during the 2004 presidential campaign, he warned that Sen. John Kerry’s election would lead to more terrorist attacks. “It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2nd, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we’ll get hit again,” he said, “that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and that we’ll fall back into the pre–9/11 mind-set, if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts and that we are not really at war.”
Today’s Republicans sound the same. “I want to be president to defeat the enemies trying to kill us, not just penalize them or criticize them or contain them, but defeat them,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham in his campaign announcement on Monday. “Nothing matters if we aren’t safe,” declares Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on his website. “You can’t enjoy your civil liberties if you’re in a coffin,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in a speech criticizing civil libertarians like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. “On behalf of your children and mine,” said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to the audience at the South Carolina Freedom Summit, “I want a leader that is willing to take a fight to them before they take the fight to us.” Even Jeb Bush, the moderate of the group, has adopted this language. “ISIS … wants to destroy Western civilization,” he said in an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation.
If this were just rhetoric, it would be less jarring. But like Cheney, these candidates have plans for an aggressive, more confrontational United States. “As president, I will use American power to oppose any violations of international waters, airspace, cyberspace, or outer space,” said Rubio in a speech on foreign policy last month. “Russia, China, Iran, or any other nation that attempts to block global commerce will know to expect a response from my administration.” Walker wants to abandon any deal with Iran, and Bush has inched toward his brother’s belligerence.
Yes, there are Republicans who have struggled to turn the party away from its interventionism. Since winning election in 2010, Paul has fought to widen the Republican foreign policy debate and tilt the conversation toward nonmilitary alternatives. But it’s been a losing battle. To even enter the conversation, he’s had to adjust his views, signing the now-infamous letter to Iran and endorsing elements of Obama’s drone policy. And his victories, like this week’s blow against key sections of the Patriot Act, are largely symbolic; the law expired, but House and Senate Republicans passed a compromise bill that reinstated core provisions on Tuesday. Paul notwithstanding, the party consensus has turned back toward Cheneyism.
Hawks will celebrate this development, but I’d be more circumspect. The centerpiece of the Bush/Cheney foreign policy agenda—the Iraq war—was a substantive disaster and an electoral catastrophe. Without Iraq, there is no Democratic majority in 2007, no Barack Obama in 2008, and potentially no Democratic presidency in 2009.
Maybe the picture has changed and voters are ready for a more hawkish administration. But before going that route, I’d think hard about the risk. Do conservatives want the next Republican president—and vice president—to leave office as hated and disdained as the last one?