Meacham’s Piece: Not So Buzzworthy

Jumping off Megan’s critical comments on Jon Meacham’s piece in the latest Newsweek, here’s another thought: let’s say we don’t give Meacham the benefit of the doubt, and instead treat the column as merely “a painfully transparent attempt at buzz-building and link-baiting.” It’s not particularly successful on those grounds, either, because “buzz” should have at least the air of something new, and Meacham’s argument—that the stark differences between Cheney and Obama would help clarify the will of the electorate, and thus deliver a “mandate” to the winner—was more or less made six months ago by Ross Douthat in an obscure little publication called The New York Times.

Here’s Meacham:

But I think we should be taking the possibility of a Dick Cheney bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 more seriously, for a run would be good for the Republicans and good for the country.

…A campaign would also give us an occasion that history denied us in 2008: an opportunity to adjudicate the George W. Bush years in a direct way. As John McCain pointed out in the fall of 2008, he is not Bush. Nor is Cheney, but the former vice president would make the case for the harder-line elements of the Bush world view. Far from fading away, Cheney has been the voice of the opposition since the inauguration. Wouldn’t it be more productive and even illuminating if he took his arguments out of the realm of punditry and into the arena of electoral politics? Are we more or less secure because of the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Does the former vice president still believe in a connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda? Did the counterterror measures adopted in the aftermath of the attacks go too far? Let’s have the fight and see what the country thinks.

And here’s Douthat:

If a Cheney defeat could have been good for the Republican Party; a Cheney campaign could have been good for the country. The former vice-president’s post-election attacks on Obama are bad form, of course, under the peculiar rules of Washington politesse. But they’re part of an argument about the means and ends of our interrogation policy that should have happened during the general election and didn’t – because McCain wasn’t a supporter of the Bush-era approach, and Obama didn’t see a percentage in harping on the topic.

…But the argument isn’t going away. It will be with us as long as the threat of terrorism endures. And where the Bush administration’s interrogation programs are concerned, we’ve heard too much to just “look forward,” as the president would have us do. We need to hear more: What was done and who approved it, and what intelligence we really gleaned from it. Not so that we can prosecute – unless the Democratic Party has taken leave of its senses – but so that we can learn, and pass judgment, and struggle toward consensus.

Here Dick Cheney… has an important role to play. He wants to defend his record; let him defend it. And let the country judge.

But better if this debate had happened during the campaign season. And better, perhaps, if Cheney himself had been there to have it out.

The particular shading and framing is a bit different: Douthat looks back to 2008 rather than ahead to 2012; he is more interested in the intra-GOP feuds than a broader struggle between right and left; he takes for granted a Cheney defeat, and he is more narrowly focused on interrogation policy. But the basic conceit—that a Cheney-Obama contest would have been a truer test of the public will than anything we’ve seen, or are likely to see—is pretty similar.

Meanwhile, for further thoughts on the merits of the argument, see Matthew Yglesias.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.