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Page last updated at 09:41 GMT, Wednesday, 13 May 2009 10:41 UK

Washington diary: Cheney's party

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Only four years ago, flush with the re-election of George W Bush and the expansion of the GOP majority on Capitol Hill, Washington insiders fell over each other to predict how solid the Republican hold on power would be.

Dick Cheney
Dick Cheney has been making regular appearances on cable TV news

Democrats seemed doomed to irrelevance.

But the tide began to turn almost immediately, as Mr Bush squandered his much-vaunted political capital, Iraq haemorrhaged American blood and Hurricane Katrina drowned any pretence of competence.

Today, some polls suggest that just one in five American voters now describe themselves as Republicans, George W Bush is so silent in retirement he appears to have gone into a witness protection programme, and his floundering party seems devoid of ideas, direction and plausible leaders.

But wait! There IS a Republican shuffling to centre-stage. The man who spent part of the last administration in an undisclosed location has popped out like a Jack-in-the-Box to take the Obama administration to task.

Conservative values

With the thawing of Spring and the greening of dead lawns, Dick Cheney has sprung back to life like a forgotten prickly plant. He has dominated the airwaves. Now even his daughter Liz is jousting on his behalf.

But with him as its figurehead, the GOP will have as much success vying for lost moderate voters as a garlic seller at a vampire's convention.

Eventually, the party will of course recover. Sooner or later Barack Obama may regret his joke that in the next 100 days he will "try to lose his cool".

Matt Frei in the BBC World News America studio
The implosion of the Republican Party reminds me of the collapse experienced by the British Conservative Party after its defeat in 1997

Deep down, the conservative values of the Republican Party - faith, family, flag, low taxation and small government - are still the values of (much of) Middle America.

But for now, they have been put on the back-burner while the administration performs economic triage.

The continuing resonance of these values is, I believe, not in question. They are likely to reassert themselves precisely when the economy begins to recover and Americans stop assuming the foetal position and start flexing their muscles once again.

But for now, these are conservative values in search of a voice and Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Bobby Jindal do not quite seem to cut the mustard.

The implosion of the Republican Party reminds me of the collapse experienced by the British Conservative Party after its defeat in 1997.

The knives were out, and stayed out for almost a decade, as the party toppled one hapless leader after another and slithered about in a bloodbath of mutual recrimination while Lady Thatcher looked on like Banquo's ghost.

She revelled in the grim satisfaction that the decline started with the treachery committed against her. Arguably, the fall had begun during her reign precisely because the party had overreached itself.

Wilderness

Hubris did for the Tories, just as it appears to be New Labour's undoing (although you could argue that they have already soldiered on into nemesis, where they will already find the GOP having set up camp).

And who will they find round the camp-fire thumbing his nose at an uncomprehending world? Dick Cheney.

Mr Cheney predicted that the Iraq War would go relatively quickly and that the economy would continue to boom. He still asserts that waterboarding is not torture and that suspending it will endanger the US.

The former Vice-President has a loyal retinue of die-hard supporters.

If, heaven forbid, al-Qaeda were to strike again on the American homeland, his currency would doubtlessly rise.

But, for now, he and the remnants of his party wander the wilderness.

Or at least that part of the wilderness where cable TV hosts have studios.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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