As his heart failed a couple summers after leaving office, former Vice President Dick Cheney slipped into a coma and, by his later account, spent weeks dreaming that he was in a countryside villa north of Rome, padding down a stone path every morning to pick up a newspaper or coffee.
Yet Cheney was never one to slip into quiet retirement in Italy or, for that matter, at his Wyoming ranch. Two years after a heart transplant reinvigorated him physically, he seems reinvigorated politically, too, as he takes on President Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Clinton, radical Islam, Sen. Rand Paul, his own party — and history.
Frustrated by what he considers the president’s weakness as extremist groups seize wide portions of Iraq, Cheney, 73, has blitzed the airwaves in recent weeks and formed a new organization to promote U.S. national security in a perilous time.
He has drawn nothing but scorn from Democrats and even some Republicans who view his remonstrations as the height of hubris from someone they blame for many of the country’s difficulties. To them he is a punch line.
But Cheney’s ability to command attention speaks to his distinctive place in the public arena. He is blunt, he is unapologetic and he is seemingly immune to the barbs aimed his way. He remains driven by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and determined to guard the nation against the dangers he sees.
If the rest of the world has moved on, he has not.
“I’m not running for anything,’’ he told Charlie Rose in one of his multiple interviews of late. “I get to say exactly what I think.’’
Some have no interest in listening. On MSNBC and on liberal op-ed pages and websites, his re-emergence has provided endless fodder for who-is-he-to-talk commentary. Some activists even argued he should be banned from television because they view him as discredited.
For a White House beleaguered on multiple fronts, the former vice president’s return is in fact a welcome opportunity to focus attention on decisions made by Cheney and President George W. Bush rather than defending Obama’s own handling of foreign policy, which most Americans disapprove of in polls.
“He’s like the A-Rod of politics,’’ said David Plouffe, the longtime Obama strategist, referring to Alex Rodriguez, the scandal-tarnished baseball star. “No one wants to hear from him, especially when he is trying to create an alternate reality to the one he is responsible for.’’
Cheney thrust himself back into the debate with a June 17 Wall Street Journal op-ed article co-written with his daughter, Liz Cheney, assailing Obama’s foreign policy as Islamic militants carve a virtual state of their own in Syria and Iraq. “Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many,’’ they wrote.
The broadside prompted a variety of retorts. Bill Clinton scoffed at Cheney for trying to blame Obama for “not cleaning up the mess that he made.’’ It was, Clinton said, “unseemly.’’
Cheney fired back with an allusion to Clinton’s sexual scandals. “If there’s somebody who knows something about unseemly, it’s Bill Clinton,’’ he said.
Even some Republicans took aim at Cheney. Rather than blame Obama for the current mess in the Middle East, Paul, the Kentucky senator considering a run for the White House, said, “The same questions could be asked of those who supported the Iraq war.’’
Cheney called Paul “basically an isolationist’’ and said “that didn’t work in the 1930s; it sure as heck won’t work in the aftermath of 9/11.’’
The back and forth highlights the tension inside a party where some want to move away from the hawkish internationalism championed by Cheney.
“With his long track record of bad judgment, Cheney’s efforts to depict more prudent and thoughtful Republicans, such as Rand Paul, as isolationists is ridiculous,’’ said Richard Burt, a former diplomat for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush who has been advising Paul.
Still others in the party worry that Cheney crowds out the growth of a new generation. “One of the challenges of a Cheney re-emergence is the party does need new leaders, new voices, new visions on national security policy and overall foreign policy to emerge,’’ said Kevin Madden, a party strategist who advised Mitt Romney.
But Cheney still has a strong following in some corners of the Republican Party that are glad to have him making the case when others do not.
“A good number of people have contacted me and said it’s great to see him out there,’’ said John McConnell, a former speechwriter for Cheney.
Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, said Obama’s failures made Americans more receptive to hawkish arguments.
“A lot of people will say: ‘Good points. Does it have to be Dick Cheney making them? He’s got so much baggage,’’’ Kristol said. “I always find that too clever by half. I think Dick Cheney is very popular among conservative Republicans.’’
Cheney’s latest public foray, friends said, reflects a genuine dismay about the chaos rocking the Middle East. He and Liz Cheney, a former State Department official, returned from a March trip to the region expressing surprise at how much consternation they detected about what they see as America’s retreat.
In television interviews, Cheney acknowledged the Iraq war did not go as well as predicted but said he and Bush turned things around with a troop increase and alliances with Sunni tribes in 2007, leaving behind a relatively stable situation that in his view Obama then squandered.
The Cheneys in turn decided to form the Alliance for a Strong America and tapped Brian Jones, a former adviser to Sen. John McCain, to help out.
“The primary focus of the group will be to educate people of the dangers of an isolationist foreign policy, the type being advocated inside and outside the party,’’ Jones said.
The organization also provides a new public platform for Liz Cheney after an abortive campaign for Senate, when she spoke out against same-sex marriage. The Cheneys have tried to move beyond the subsequent family rupture that occurred: The vice president’s other daughter, Mary Cheney, who is married to another woman, publicly criticized her sister. Liz Cheney ultimately dropped out of the race, citing an unrelated family emergency.
It is not clear whether the sisters have made up. Asked about the foreign policy group, Mary Cheney demurred. “I’m not involved in his new organization,’’ she said by email, without elaborating.
Former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, a longtime Cheney friend, said Cheney understood that speaking out on Iraq would draw fire from “the haters’’ who “love to demonize him.’’
No matter, he said. “He’s got a skin that’s like a rhinoceros,’’ Simpson said. “When you have your skin ripped off as many times as I have and he has, it grows back double strength.’’