When I registered last week to attend Dick Cheney's speech today, I already knew it was going to be a big event, but with President Obama's Guantanamo speech immediately preceding it and the ensuing "dueling speeches" hype, AEI's Wohlstetter Conference Center took on the atmosphere of a prize fight, complete with the obligatory famous (for D.C.) attendees.
We watched Obama's speech on an overhead projector and when it ended, I half expected the room to go dark for Cheney's introduction. (AEI president Arthur Brooks makes a somewhat unsatisfying Don King figure.)
The "duel" theme felt especially strange since Cheney's speech wasn't really a rebuttal to Obama's in any real sense. Cheney's prepared remarks were passed out before Obama's speech had even ended and except for a shortened introduction, he didn't deviate from them at all.
In some sense, it would have been nice to hear actual dueling speeches in which the former vice president would actual respond to the points Obama made. For instance, Cheney repeated this currently popular talking point:
Attorney General Holder and others have admitted that the United States will be compelled to accept a number of the terrorists here, in the homeland, and it has even been suggested US taxpayer dollars will be used to support them. On this one, I find myself in complete agreement with many in the President’s own party. Unsure how to explain to their constituents why terrorists might soon be relocating into their states, these Democrats chose instead to strip funding for such a move out of the most recent war supplemental.
But Obama had already denounced this argument as a scare tactic and made this point:
We will seek to transfer some detainees to the same type of facilities in which we hold all manner of dangerous and violent criminals within our borders – highly secure prisons that ensure the public safety. As we make these decisions, bear in mind the following fact: nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal "supermax" prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists.
I would have liked to hear Cheney's response to this point (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also can't be thrilled that Dick Cheney is now his highest profile ally in this fight).
As another example, Obama's point that "unlike the Civil War or World War II, we cannot count on a surrender ceremony to bring this journey to an end" was a fairly good rebuttal to Cheney's arument that because there has not been a repeat of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration's antiterrorism tactics should be "continued until the danger has passed." Of course, it's unlikely to ever be clear when the danger has passed, meaning that the extraordinary authority that Cheney believes the president should be afforded will only be afforded at the president's own discretion.
At the same time, Cheney made some points that it would have been enlightening to hear Obama respond to as well, such as the new study Cheney highlighted showing that one in seven released Guantanamo detainees returns to terrorism or his admonishment of the administration for revealing details of interrogation methods without releasing the information they were used to obtain.
But in the end, the "dueling speeches" set-up has to be counted as a victory for Obama. The format increased the attention paid to Cheney's speech and the fact that much of what Cheney said had already been answered by Obama, made the Republican position look out of touch with recent developments. The administration seems to have decided that the best way to make its case is to set up Dick Cheney as the face of the opposition. Still, a real debate between these two would have been pretty fascinating.
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