campaign desk

Not a Showdown

Politico, MSNBC, Time hype Obama vs. Cheney non-controversy
May 20, 2009

As we’ve noted before, nothing gets media juices flowing like a tasty conflict. A few months back, it was Limbaugh going up against Obama in some theoretical debate. This time, it’s Cheney versus the president in a showdown for the history books. Politico today creates a false conflict between the former vice president and the current occupant of the White House, by playing up two national security speeches that Cheney and Obama will deliver tomorrow.

President Barack Obama will attempt to regain control of a boiling debate over anti-terrorism policy with a major speech on Thursday — an address that comes on the same day that former Vice President Dick Cheney will be weighing in with his own speech on the same theme.

The dueling speeches amount to the most direct engagement so far between Obama and his conservative critics in the volatile argument over what tactics are justified in detaining and interrogating suspected enemy combatants.

Much has been made of this “duel”—with Mark Halperin playing up a graphic of Obama and Cheney’s heads photoshopped onto two boxers in a ring, and on MSNBC Andrea Mitchell Reports had a “Pres. Obama Vs Cheney” chyron earlier today.

But, despite all the hot air blowing around this showdown, there’s no actual conflict between Cheney and Obama. Steve Benen over at Washington Monthly offers a pretty straightforward distinction between the two:

President Obama is the Commander in Chief in a time of two wars. He’ll be delivering a lengthy speech about U.S. national security, his recent decisions on matters like Gitmo and military commissions, and where U.S. policy is headed.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Dick Cheney used to hold office, but he’s now a cranky private citizen, who’s taken it upon himself to undermine the current administration. He’ll be speaking at a think tank about how right he thinks he was, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, and why he’d like to see the White House’s decisions fall in line with his own.

One of these speeches is consequential. The other will be delivered by Dick Cheney.

And, that’s all there is to it—it’s completely unreasonable to frame these two speeches as an actual debate between two equals. We have a democratically elected president, and an unpopular former politician who are not directly engaging with one another. The question of national security is too important to important to sidestep in favor of a falsely construed schoolyard fight between a bully and the class president. What’s more, to set up these speeches as a contest presupposes that there might be an actual winner. But this sort of shallow, politics-as-a-game coverage only makes losers—of the press and of the public.

Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.