Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s sweeping indictment of administration policy changes on the handling of terrorism-suspect detainees has thrown President Obama on the defensive and scored points for the vice president and his party, according to pollsters and political analysts.
While Mr. Cheney has come under increasing fire from Democrats for charging that Mr. Obama’s policies have made the country more vulnerable to future terrorist attacks, polls show a majority of Americans side with him on using aggressive interrogation methods on high value al Qaeda prisoners and are against moving them from the detention facility at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to maximum-security facilities in the U.S.
“Cheney’s critical comments in recent weeks and the Senate vote against funds for closing Guantanamo did put the president on the defensive and led to his speech” on Friday defending his national security policies, said Thomas Mann, a presidential scholar at the liberal Brookings Institution.
That speech occurred on the same day Mr. Cheney delivered a blistering speech of his own in defense of the Bush administration policies that he helped to shape and that he said had kept the nation safe in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Mr. Cheney’s aggressive, nonstop criticism of the White House’s actions, beginning with Mr. Obama’s ban on harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, have unleashed a wave of attacks from his liberal critics. It has also won him praise from his party’s conservative base and, according to polls, support for his positions among independent voters that the GOP needs if it is to make a political comeback in future elections.
“I have tested the message and the message clearly helps Republicans,” said Whit Ayres, a pollster for Resurgent Republic, a GOP advocacy group. A poll he conducted May 11 to 14 found voters supported “harsh interrogation” of al Qaeda prisoners by a 19-point margin, 53 percent to 34 percent - including 53 percent support among independents.
A similarly “strong majority believes the Guantanamo Base prison helps protect America, rather than undermines our moral authority. Independents are, again, much more like Republicans than Democrats on this issue,” Mr. Ayres said in a report on his poll’s findings.
“The challenge for Republicans now is winning back independents who abandoned Republicans in droves in 2006 and 2008. This helps persuade independents that their values are most closely aligned with Republicans than with Democrats,” he said.
While Mr. Cheney has been a constant Democratic target of derision for his outspoken criticism of Mr. Obama’s policies on terrorism, polls show his low approval ratings have begun to rise lately. A CNN poll conducted last week found that 55 percent still view the former vice president unfavorably, but 37 percent now have a favorable impression of him, up eight points since January.
“Vice President Cheney has been the target of every media, from mainstream to comic. But he spoke today as before without regard to politics, but with abiding respect for the truth. His address today was direct, well-reasoned and convincing,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said Thursday.
Nevertheless, some of his supporters say he remains a divisive figure who can undercut the effectiveness of his role as a critic of administration policies.
“He is very effective and well-received in the Republican red states that voted for John McCain, but at the same time he is a polarizing figure, and in the larger universe of American politics you are either going to like him or hate him,” said Republican media strategist Ron Bonjean, a former communications adviser to the Republican leadership in Congress.
“But right now, Cheney’s message and his constituency is paying off and making Obama look extremely weak on fighting terrorism,” Mr. Bonjean said.
Still, Republican leaders in some of the key swing states that will be critical to the GOP’s future were cautious in their comments last week about Mr. Cheney’s effectiveness as a party messenger.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong about his speaking up and speaking out when he thinks policies will weaken our national security. I don’t find any fault in that,” said Florida Republican state Chairman Jim Greer.
“At the same time, I don’t believe the American public, including many Republicans, want to revisit the past and the decisions that were made and why they were made,” Mr. Greer said. Rebuilding the party is “going to require that we talk about the future and not the past.”
Mr. Mann, of the Brookings Institution, thinks that “Cheney’s argument is with Bush, not Obama, and his charge that Obama is making Americans less safe from terrorists is unsupported by the evidence,” and that the president will eventually “get his way with [closing] Guantanamo” and moving its prisoners elsewhere.
But the overwhelming House and Senate vote, including most Democrats, against closing the facility if it means moving detainees into the U.S. suggests Mr. Cheney and the Republicans have turned it into a winning issue for the GOP and a major setback for the president.
Meanwhile, a key former adviser to Mr. Cheney, says he has no intention of folding his tent and going into retirement anytime soon, as long as he feels Mr. Obama’s policies will endanger the country’s security. A major objective for him will be to force the administration to release key intelligence memos he says will show that aggressive interrogation methods were effective in producing valuable information that kept Americans safe from terrorist plots.
“As long as you engage the country in the policy debate, then people have a choice. This is why he is going to stay on this, advocating releasing the effectiveness memos,” said former Cheney adviser Mary Matalin.
“You can’t play politics with national security. This is all about policy for Cheney and the Republicans, moving forward on those policies. It has everything to do with getting back from where we never should have strayed. That’s why he’s spoken up,” Mrs. Matalin said.
“Obama’s clearly on the defensive here. He turned this into a values fight. This is not about moral relativism. Evil people want to kill innocents. Wanting to defend ourselves is not an abrogation of our values,” she said.
As last week’s war of words wound down on Friday, the president’s press secretary Robert Gibbs said Mr. Obama didn’t have any particular problem with Mr. Cheney’s speaking out on the national security issues he believes are important.
Still, he added, the president will not “shy away” from further debate on the issue.