It’s not exactly the Ali-Frazier “Thrilla in Manilla,” but the ongoing Rand Paul-Dick Cheney pugilism certainly packs a punch.
The libertarian ophthalmologist and the warlord emeritus have been pounding each other for months, and while it’s tempting to just kick back with popcorn and behold the entertainment, we do need to acknowledge the bout’s deeper meaning. Because this is really about something quite serious.
Republicans are profoundly split these days over foreign policy: between the non-interventionists who are increasingly wary of American military involvement abroad; and the neoconservative hawks who blundered us into Iraq and want us to keep flexing military muscle. Senator Paul is a leader of the non-interventionsts, a GOP faction that used to be tiny, but not anymore. The Iraq disaster has swelled their ranks, and Paul hopes to speak for them in the 2016 presidential primaries.
Cheney is freaked out about that; hence his creation of a new group, Alliance for a Stronger America, which is geared to rebut Paul at every turn. Cheney clearly hopes to influence the GOP’s foreign policy debate; his new group is set up to raise money from anonymous donors and steer the bucks to like-minded candidates.
Paul delivered the latest flurry of punches. Last Thursday, in his own Wall Street Journal column, he was clearly talking about Cheney: “Many of those clamoring for military action now (in Iraq) are the same people who made every false assumption imaginable about the cost, challenge and purpose of the Iraq war. They have been wrong for so long, why should we listen to them again?” Paul followed his column up with a weekend appearance on Meet the Press, where he questioned the credibility “of those who supported the Iraq war.” Cheney quickly retaliated on ABC’s This Week, labeling Paul as an “isolationist” and saying his views “didn’t work in the 1930s, it sure as heck won’t work in the aftermath of 9/11.”
It’s hard to say who started this spat, but Paul arguably did so in 2009, when he was caught on video suggesting that Cheney dragged us into Iraq to profit his old cronies at Halliburton. In the video, which surfaced this spring, Paul tells an audience of college students: “We need to be fearful of companies that get so big that they can actually be directing policy....Dick Cheney (during the ‘90s) goes to work for Halliburton, makes hundreds of millions of dollars as their CEO. The next thing you know, he’s back in government, and it’s a good thing to go into Iraq.”
That was quite an insinuation, to say that Cheney ginned up a war to make money for his pals. When asked about the video this spring, Paul retreated a tad: “I’m not questioning Dick Cheney’s motives,” but nevertheless said: “When people go from high levels of government (Pentagon chief for Bush the elder) to high levels of industry that are dependent on government money, there’s a chance for a conflict of interest.”
Wow. You rarely hear that kind of talk in GOP circles, and Team Cheney didn’t like it. Cheney dispatched his daughter Liz (the daughter who bombed out in the Wyoming Senate race) to assert: “Senator Paul often seems to get his foreign policy talking points from Rachel Maddow.” Dad defended himself on CNN: “I had no relationship at all with the company throughout the time that I was vice president. I didn’t even talk to them....So (Paul) is obviously not familiar with the facts.”
Dick Cheney, of all people, claiming that someone else is fact-challenged. Insert joke here.
Who should we root for in this ongoing Republican intramural? Probably Paul (grading on a curve), if only because of Cheney’s serial lies and performance failures. What’s unknowable is whether Paul can actually win the GOP nomination as a non-interventionist. Paul is currently first (just barely) in the latest Real Clear Politics aggregation of polls of a crowded field of potential 2016 candidates, but the truth is, most GOP primary voters traditionally favor a muscular foreign policy.
It’d be nice if the party found a middle ground (is there no such thing as prudent, fact-based interventionism?), but that won’t happen any time soon. As Paul warned the Cheney camp back in April, “sharpen your knives, because the battle once begun will not end easily.”
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.