A tale of two speeches

On Thursday, the two parties’ most visible spokesmen — President Obama and former Vice President Cheney — offered very different models for keeping America safe.

Obama’s vision was rooted in a respect for our country’s constitutional values, declaring those principles to be not an impediment to national security, but rather the bedrock of it.

“We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset — in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval,” he said.

Cheney’s remarks, by contrast, touched on a familiar Republican theme: that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, could be used to justify just about any action a president — or vice president — chooses to take. In his 5,500-word address, the former vice president cited 9/11 no fewer than 27 times in defending the Bush administration’s policies, in areas spanning from torture to the war in Iraq.

For his part, President Obama chose not to question the motives of the previous administration. And while he took issue with the Bush team for cherry-picking intelligence to support its ideological objectives, Obama said we all shared some responsibility for executive-branch excess.

“Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions. And I believe that those decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people,” said Obama. “But I also believe that — too often — our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight, and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, we too often set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And in this season of fear, too many of us — Democrats and Republicans; politicians, journalists and citizens — fell silent.”

Cheney was less generous in assessing the intentions of his critics. “Over on the left wing of the president’s party, there appears to be little curiosity in finding out what was learned from the terrorists,” he said. Of President Obama’s belief that torturing detainees fueled the recruitment of terrorists, Cheney charged: “This recruitment-tool theory has become something of a mantra lately, including from the president himself. And after a familiar fashion, it excuses the violent and blames America for the evil that others do. It’s another version of that same old refrain from the left: ‘We brought it on ourselves.’ ”

But nowhere was the contrast in visions more clear than in the debate over ideological rigidity versus shared American values.

“The administration seems to pride itself on searching for some kind of middle ground in policies addressing terrorism,” Cheney groused.

“The American people are not absolutist, and they don’t elect us to impose a rigid ideology on our problems,” said Obama. “They know that we need not sacrifice our security for our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security, so long as we approach difficult questions with honesty, and care, and a dose of common sense.”

It wasn’t a debate, or even a joint appearance. But for average Americans watching these back-to-back speeches, one thing should be clear.

Real change has come to Washington. And the old guard doesn’t like it a bit.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.