WASHINGTON -- Last week's explosive Cheney-Obama rhetorical showdown ended in a damp fizzle of substantive agreement about the continuation of military commissions, about the need for indefinite detention of some terrorists and about the three-ring foolishness of a "truth commission." The sharpest dispute, it turned out, concerned interrogation practices discontinued six years ago. Meanwhile, President Obama continues the targeted killings of terrorists by drones in Pakistan and the rendition of terrorists to friends less punctilious in their application of the Geneva Conventions. It is hypocrisy -- but hypocrisy in the national interest.
On another front in former Vice President Richard Cheney's media offensive -- this one against former Secretary of State Colin Powell on the future of the Republican Party -- the argument is just heating up. "I didn't know he was still a Republican," observed Cheney, at his most terse and acerbic. Powell dismissed the comment as "misinformed," before criticizing the Republican Party as "very, very narrow."
In some ways, these two figures are strange representatives of the ideological poles of Republicanism. While Cheney's House voting record was broadly conservative, he was admired widely by Republican moderates for his reasonable tone. He has always been reticent on controversial social issues -- except in his vocal support of gay marriage. Powell, in contrast, was one of the main authors of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuality. And Powell and his wife Alma both have been praised (deservedly) by conservatives for their commitments to the mentoring and moral education of youth.
But Cheney has a point about the questionable strength of Powell's partisan attachments -- an uncertainty Powell himself has cultivated. In 1995, Powell pronounced himself unable "to find a perfect fit in either of the two existing parties" and floated the idea of running for president as an independent. Even after embracing his inner Republicanism, Powell has seldom criticized the Democratic Party with the same relish he brings to denouncing Republican excess. And Powell's endorsement of Obama against John McCain can hardly be interpreted as a protest against Republican extremism. McCain was (and is) a traditional foil of conservatives on issues such as immigration, the environment and campaign finance reform. If Powell couldn't support McCain against Obama, it is hard to think what Republican would have sufficed.
In spite of all this, it is Powell to whom Republicans should be listening. A party more focused on excommunication than proselytization is in trouble. And Powell is calling attention to some unavoidable truths.