Who does Cheney really have a beef with?

An interesting undercurrent to yesterday's Cheney-Obama faceoff has been growing in the blogosphere: Who is Dick Cheney upset with--Obama, or George Bush?

Jack Goldsmith, a Bush administration Justice Departmento official, set off the debate with a Monday piece at TNR.com. Obama, he argued, has kept in place much of Bush's anti-terrorism legal framework, trimming in only at the edges. The real change, Goldsmith argues, is in the way Obama talks about executive power. Bush and Cheney appeared eager to expand the presidency, which gave the public doubts about their demands for secrecy and wartime privileges. Obama, on the other hand, seems to seek these power reluctantly, giving him more credibility with a wary public.

But Goldsmith also highlights a bit of history that the blogophsere has picked up on as Cheney ratcheted up his attack on Obama yesterday: during Bush's second term, the administration rolled back much of its most drastic policies--the policies Obama and other Democrats campaigned most stridently against. What was left in the last few years of the Bush administration was the basic framework Obama has inherited and sustained. "One reason the Obama practices are so close to the late Bush practices is that the late Bush practices were much different than the early ones," Goldsmith writes.

It follows that when Cheney rails against Obama's weak-kneed concessions, he's really criticizing the changes Bush made in his second term, when Cheney's advice to a back seat to that of Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley. This is the meme that's been spreading across the blogophsere in recent days (at least the center-left, center-right, and non-partisan blogs.)

Marc Ambinder, for example:
Cheney seems to be arguing with himself; or, rather, with the decisions that his President, George W. Bush, made after the thumping of the 2006 elections. He is arguing with Republican Party elites, most of whom are willing to criticize individual decisions Obama has made but who can't find fault with his general approach to terrorism.

David Brooks:
When Cheney lambastes the change in security policy, he's not really attacking the Obama administration. He's attacking the Bush administration. In his speech on Thursday, he repeated in public a lot of the same arguments he had been making within the Bush White House as the policy decisions went more and more the other way.

Charles Krauthammer:
Within 125 days, Obama has adopted with only minor modifications huge swaths of the entire, allegedly lawless Bush program.



The latest flip-flop is the restoration of military tribunals. During the 2008 campaign, Obama denounced them repeatedly, calling them an "enormous failure." Obama suspended them upon his swearing in. Now they're back.

Obama will never admit in word what he's doing in deed. As in his rhetorically brilliant national-security speech on Thursday claiming to have undone Bush's moral travesties, the military commissions flip-flop is accompanied by the usual Obama three-step: (a) excoriate the Bush policy, (b) ostentatiously unveil cosmetic changes, (c) adopt the Bush policy.

It seems to me that this interpretation actually poses a problem for Republicans' current line of attack. If Obama has adopted much of Bush's policies, then he may be a "flip-flopper," but he's not a radical. The GOP can't accuse him of both at the same time. So far, they've chosen to pursue the latter route--that Obama has drastically weakened national security. But if the interpretation that Obama has adopted and legitimated Bush's policies continues to grow--and if civil libertarians continue their somewhat loud attacks on Obama's changes of heart--then the GOP is going to have to change course.