The Coming (Cheney v. Obama) Thrilla?

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I am supposed to advise you that there is electricity in the Washington swamp air, a ringing tension, a sharp static, a fibrous charge that will explode at any moment. I should compare this moment to Manila, circa 1975, when Muhammed Ali was cavorting about with a rubber gorilla, taunting Joe Frazier into furious focus before the big fight.

Except this time the misbehaving heavyweight champion of the world is played by former Vice President Dick Cheney, an old man with a persistent ticker and a commitment to steamrolling history’s judgment like so many pinhead public servants in the broken bureaucracy. His rhetorical weapons are overstatements (we only went harsh on terrorists with techniques we used on our own soldiers; we only used harsh methods when all else failed; we always followed lawyers’ instructions; the abuse was carefully controlled) and misdirection (never mind the rest, it worked). His toy gorilla is fear of the unknown, the attacks that never happened and are sure to come.

If Ali had the Nation of Islam to back him up, Cheney has the Nation Of Rebublicans, such as it remains–a cavalcade of aspiring tough guys, Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, the talk radio gabbers. In recent weeks, following Cheney’s lead, they have settled on national security as their best card left to play against Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and the bunch. (This, in itself, is an amazing admission, given Obama’s dramatic expansion of domestic government.) And so they are hammering hard, trying to disrupt the cool of Mister Cool, President O, who I can now posit as Frazier, the workhorse, his head down, focused on the fight.

Such is the set up that is expected of me, a Washington correspondent, at a moment like this. For there is a showdown scheduled tomorrow–Obama and Cheney both giving separate speeches on national security. All the narrative elements are there to get America to pay attention, a top-billed clash, a battle, a contest of generations, of ideologies, of facts. This is the story line you will likely hear for the next 36 hours on cable and on the web, minus, of course, my strained boxing metaphor, which is imperfect, in part, because history has left far more Ali defenders than Cheney is likely to enjoy.

But instead, I pause. What is this all about anyway? How to distinguish the hype from what is happening? What battle is really being fought?

It is true, for instance, that Obama’s foreign policy is all pragmatism all the time, not to mention largely (and ironically) endorsed by his former rival John McCain. For some, like Maureen Dowd today in the New York Times, this is evidence of Obama’s weakness, his supplicant disposition in the face of Cheney’s growl. But it is also what close observers of Obama always expected, with a few marginal hedges (state secrets, abuse photos, etc.). Throughout the campaign, Obama’s condemnations of Bush Administration policy were loud, though his proposals of alternatives were vague and hemmed in by harsh realities. So I’m not sure I’m buying any of it as a victory for the Cheney wing. It seems instead a realization of the Obama’s long-standing, academic tendency to calculated caution.

As for the Cheney reclaiming history sideshow, the John Boehner bleats about terrorist prison breaks, and Pete Hoekstra’s hollers that Nancy Pelosi might have (gasp!) done what he himself did–I can’t quite figure the import, beyond filling the time between ads for Clean Coal on MSNBC. National security is, as Republicans have explained to me, a life preserver of sorts amidst this Democratic tsunami. But it will only matter if Obama does not produce the results he has promised. If anything, Republicans are priming the pump for future failures, future attacks. But if Obama succeeds, all this noise will be for naught. What the American people want, more than anything else, is a leader who can do what he says.

Meanwhile, Obama and his team have yet to get ruffled like Frazier before the fight. The polls, which show continued Republicans flailing, even on issues like national security, offer little concern. “They may see this as their life preserver,” David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser, told me yesterday. “But they also may be out in deep water without any assistance.” Either way, the bottom line remains. Obama’s fortunes will be decided by how well his plans and policies work, not by what he or Cheney say tomorrow.