The Nation: Is Dick Cheney The GOP Front-Runner? Were the GOP candidates channeling Dick Cheney from the podium? The Nation's John Nichols explains why the foreign policy debate felt like deja-vu.
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The Nation: Is Dick Cheney The GOP Front-Runner?

Former Vice President Dick Cheney is interviewed by SiriusXM Patriot host David Webb at SiriusXM studios on Oct. 25, 2011 in Washington, DC. Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images hide caption

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Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Former Vice President Dick Cheney is interviewed by SiriusXM Patriot host David Webb at SiriusXM studios on Oct. 25, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

John Nichols is the author of Dick: The Man Who is President and The Rise and Rise of Richard B, Cheney.

There is not a lot of fresh polling data on Dick Cheney. While it is fair to say that the numbers are probably a bit better than they were when the CBS News/New York Times team found in the final poll of the Bush-Cheney era that the outgoing vice president had a 13 percent favorable rating, there's no evidence to suggest that Americans have warmed in any substantial way to the country's chief advocate for war, torture, surveillance and secrecy.

Except, this is, for the Americans who are considered front-runners in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

With the exception of Ron Paul (who is actually right about a lot of issues) and John Huntsman (who is actually rational), the crowd on stage at Satirday night's "Republican Commander-in-Chief Debate" in South Carolina oozed Cheneyism.

Mitt Romney, the frontrunner Republicans love to hate, and Newt Gingrich, the next alternative to Romneyevitability, sparred over who was more prepared to go nuclear with Iran. Gingrich advocated assassination ("taking out their scientists") and massive disruption ("breaking up their systems, all of it covertly, all of it deniable") as first steps. Then war. Romney went with rank partisanship: "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon."

While Gingrich had the Cheney style down, Romney went full Cheney with the groundless suggestion that Obama would do nothing to prevent nuclear proliferation. Cheney points to Mitt.

Gingrich upped the ante by fretting that the "Arab Spring" is becoming an "anti-Christian Spring."

Then Michele Bachmann — after comically debating with Rick Perry about whether to "start foreign aid at zero" — went full Cheney with her line: "President Obama stands with Occupy Wall Street, but he doesn't stand with Israel."

Bachmann got more Cheney points with her advocacy for waterboarding, as did Herman Cain—who was very glad to be discussing foreign affairs. Perry said he was against torture before he was for it, declaring that while he did not approve of certain forms of cruel and unusual punishment, "this is war. That's what happens in war."

That was actually a very good Cheney impression: an inaccurate statement delivered with a combination of seriousness and bombast designed to excuse any abuse of the truth or the law. And Perry got some applause for it.

Congressman Paul, in contrast, upset a portion of the partisan crowd by declaring that "water boarding is torture" and reminding the crowd that "torture is illegal" under both US and international laws. "Why would you accept the position of torturing a hundred people because you know one person might have information?" Paul asked, adding that: "It's really un-American to accept, on principle, that we will torture people that we capture."

Huntsman, the former US ambassador to China and arguably the ablest analyst of foreign affairs on the stage, agreed, saying, "We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project, which include liberty, democracy, human rights and open markets, when we torture."

Huntsman did not sound like Cheney when he added. "We lose that ability to project values that a lot of people in corners of this world are still relying on the United States to stand up for."

But Bachmann dialed up the Cheney with her applause line of the night. While advocating for torture, she griped that Barack Obama "has allowed the ACLU to run the CIA."

For the record this is what the ACLU says: "Contrary to Congresswoman Bachmann's claims, only the Constitution guides our nation's fight against terrorism. While the ACLU does not run the CIA, General David Petraeus does run it, and he has made clear that waterboarding and other torture have no place at the CIA or in the military."

No word yet from Cheney regarding the debate. But, surely, he must be satisfied.

He may not be very popular with the American people. But he is winning the battle of ideas — such as it is — within his Republican Party.