Rupert Cornwell: For Republicans, it can't get any worse

A resurgent Dick Cheney is the last thing his party needs

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The chime of midnight has sounded, and all is still in the Republican political graveyard. But lo, with a creaking and grinding, a tomb slowly opens. A spectral figure clambers forth, clad in darkest black. Wearing a familiar lopsided and slightly twisted smile, he makes his way out of the graveyard, back into the world of the living. It is, of course, Dick Cheney.

In office, he might have been the most secretive (as well of course as the most powerful) Vice-President in US history. Now the Bush administration's invisible yet omnipresent man, he of the secure undisclosed location, who even had his official Washington residence turned into a fuzzy blur on Google Earth, has suddenly become the Republican party's most visible face. Under the American system, there is no formal post of leader of the opposition, of the party which does not hold the White House. Informally, however, Cheney has suddenly seized that role for himself.

Apart from a speech in Canada, George W Bush has been maintaining an inscrutable silence these past few months, straightening out his new house in Dallas, and embarking on his memoirs. As for Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and other stalwarts of his unlamented era, they might have vanished from the earth.

Cheney, though, is everywhere. Not a weekend passes without an appearance on a Sunday talk show. He is a staple of conservative Fox News and a regular on the speech circuit, as he attacks Barack Obama for his overtures to Iran, and his decision to close Guantanamo Bay. Obama, Cheney declares in those gravelly, sonorous tones of his, is making America not more but less safe from terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, the man who in office fought to keep even the most insignificant government papers classified on the grounds of "national security" now calls for the publication of once super-secret documents from his days in power, that purportedly prove the "enhanced interrogation techniques" (a.k.a. torture) in which he fervently believes, did in fact work.

Not for him the admission of error. If the previous administration made a mistake, it was in being not too conservative, but not conservative enough. Astonishingly, Cheney held up the bombastic Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing talk radio host, as a better role model for Republicans than Colin Powell. Admittedly, Cheney and Powell had big policy differences, and Powell came out in support of Obama in the 2008 election. But to prefer a merchant of talk show prejudice to one of the country's acknowledged heroes, who might actually expand the Republicans' withering base, is surely taking things too far.

Up to a point, Cheney's behaviour is perfectly defensible. He is at least prepared to stand up in public for what he believes. And maybe he's even having an impact on policy: maybe Obama did take Cheney's admonitions to heart when he decided on Wednesday to fight publication of photos of detainee abuse by US personnel, on the grounds they would stir up more anti-American sentiment, imperilling US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that's as far as it goes. In every other way, a re-emergent and defiantly unapologetic Dick Cheney is the last thing the Republicans need at the moment. He represents a past that a large majority of Americans wish had never happened. He remains, if anything, even more unpopular than his erstwhile boss.

Cheney-as-leader-of-the-opposition will not last. Since the election, the role has already changed hands several times. John McCain vanished from the scene pretty much immediately after his defeat. The mantle first passed to Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader who is the highest ranking Republican on Capitol Hill. But McConnell is a legislative tactician, not a frontline leader. Eyes then briefly turned to Bobby Jindal, the young and personable governor of Louisiana, an Indian-American who had been billed as the Republican Obama. Unfortunately, when his big moment came and he was picked to deliver the Republican response to Obama's first address to Congress, he bombed.

None other than Limbaugh himself then stepped into the breach, with a flame-throwing speech to a conference of conservatives mainly notable for the line, "I hope Obama fails". Republican dignitaries who suggested Limbaugh had gone too far were quickly forced to grovel to the great man. Now it's Cheney's turn, the only consolation being that he at least, unlike other sitting or former vice-presidents (Nixon, Mondale, Bush Senior and Al Gore), has no ambition for the top job. Next up in this rotating leadership may be Sarah Palin, who most certainly does have such aspirations, and whose own memoirs will be appearing next year, as eyes turn to campaign 2012.

In a way, none of this greatly matters. Obama is highly popular. The country basically agrees with what he's trying to do. It recognises the depth of America's problems, and is ready to be patient. Under these circumstances, a half-way decent performance should guarantee him re-election in 2012. There are tides in politics, and if the tide is running against you, there's not a great deal you can do about it. Thus it is with the Republicans right now, when Americans will accept bigger government – even bigger taxes – if that's what is required to put the country to rights. The Republicans are out of the game, with no realistic hope of recapturing the White House until 2016 at the earliest.

But even that goal may be wishful thinking. The Republicans are in a virtually identical position to the discredited and divided Conservatives in 1997 – perhaps an even worse one, given that John Major's government bequeathed a recovering economy, and indeed also a proven economic philosophy, to its Labour successor. Immediately after their defeat the Tories then, like the Republicans now, lurched even further to the right.

It has taken a dozen years, utter disenchantment with Labour but, above all, a re-making of the Conservative brand along more centrist, "caring" lines for the party to stand once more on the brink of power. With Dick Cheney disentombed and stalking the land, the Republicans may have to wait as long on the other side of the Atlantic.

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