Second Lady Lynne Cheney, like her husband, really knows how to throw a vicious elbow. Last week she was doing the talk show rounds to promote her memoirs, Blue Skies, No Fences, when she let slip to MSNBC that Vice President Dick Cheney and Illinois senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama are related. "Isn't that an amazing thing?" she teased.
It should have been a good week for Obama. Third quarter filings showed that he was within spitting distance of his chief rival, Senator Hillary Clinton, in campaign fundraising; he beefed up staff to vigorously contest the Democratic nomination; and he appeared on the Tonight Show.
Instead, the big story was that he and Dick Cheney are "cousins" -- eighth cousins, to be exact. Newspapers and cable channels broke out pictures of a smiling Obama, surrounded by his family, being sworn in as a senator by Vice President Cheney in 2005.
The timing was perfect to do real damage to Obama's campaign. He needs to convince a great number of Democratic primary voters to reconsider their support for Clinton. News that he is related, however distantly, to the most hated Republican of them all makes it harder to make the sale. Obama had to send out an e-mail to supporters at mid-week insisting that Clinton does not yet have this nomination in the bag.
Worse, the second lady also attacked Senator Clinton by name. Mrs. Cheney told the AP that Clinton's wavering on Iraq "makes me uncomfortable." Unsurprisingly, she said that she would prefer politicians in the "mold" of her husband "who say what they mean and mean what they say." Like the time he had that little heart-to-heart with Senator Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor.
One of Obama's great selling points is that he opposed the Iraq war, while Clinton voted for it. But Lynne Cheney's remarks are helping to muddy that message. In many of the stories about the second lady's remarks, Clinton supporters were quoted attacking the "failed" Iraq policies of the Bush administration. That should be music to the average Democratic primary voter's ears.
Cheney's Obama bombshell and Clinton criticisms seem to be very calculated and aimed at accomplishing two things. First, encourage the nomination of Clinton, a sort-of pro-war Democrat who will have a hard time drawing very sharp distinctions between herself and a Republican in the general election. Second, lay down a critique of Clinton that a hypothetical hawkish Republican -- let's call him Gudy Riuliani -- can pick up.
The critique goes: Sure, there may be some problems with being too forceful but with Clinton you don't know what you're going to get. She voted for Iraq but now wants out -- eventually. Wouldn't the country to be better off on balance, asks Cheney, to elect a president who is more forceful and who understands "that there are people out there who want to destroy us and destroy our way of life"?
(When you put it like that...)
If nothing else, her words last week reminded us what an able operator Mrs. Cheney is. The former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and former Crossfire co-host is well-connected, smart, and very good at inflicting pain on political opponents.
In fact, she might be better than her husband. Remember, during the 2004 vice presidential debates, former Senator John Edwards brought up the subject of the Cheneys' lesbian daughter Mary to try to score points against Republicans who wanted to ban gay marriage.
Dick Cheney shrugged it off with as few words as possible, but after Senator John Kerry tried the same trick in a debate with President George W. Bush, Lynne Cheney let Kerry have it. Speaking as "a mom, and a pretty indignant mom," she told a Pittsburg crowd, "This is not a good man."
Kerry tried to clarify his remarks but it was hard to know what to say that wouldn't make it worse. Lynne Cheney had caught him at just the right angle and he was smarting. Maybe he should commiserate with Senator Obama.
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