[Mb-civic] The Other President Economist

Michael Butler michael at michaelbutler.com
Mon Sep 6 11:23:55 PDT 2004



The other president

Sep 2nd 2004 
>From The Economist print edition

Dick Cheney, backseat driver par excellence

IN MOST presidential re-election campaigns people don't spare a second
thought for the vice-presidential candidate. Nobody voted to re-elect Ronald
Reagan because he had George Bush senior on the ticket, or Bill Clinton
because he had Al Gore. But this year Americans ought to spare more than a
second thought for the man who stepped onto the stage in Madison Square
Garden on Wednesday night.

 Dick Cheney growled out a speech that was reminiscent of General Secretary
Andropov on a bad day. The audience loved him anyway. When he spoke of
George Bush never seeking ³a permission slip to defend the American people²,
they burst into chants of ³Four more years!². Nobody expected lofty rhetoric
from this particular vice-president. Mr Cheney's talent is not for the
theatrics of power, but for the mechanics.

 He is not only the most powerful vice-president in American history. He is
also the most controversial, a man whose decisions have repeatedly given
even loyal Republicans pause. Four more years of George W. means four more
years of Bush-Cheney: the closest thing to a co-presidency America has ever

 For the past four years the two men have been inseparable. Most
vice-presidents have to fight for time with their boss; Mr Cheney sees his
several times a day. Most vice-presidents spend their days at state
funerals; Mr Cheney, more than anyone else, picked the members of the
current administration. Thereafter he helped to shape the administration's
policies on everything from energy policy to the invasion of Iraq.

 The Republicans have repeatedly reminded Americans this week that September
11th 2001 defined this administration. But who was in charge on that
terrible day? It was Mr Cheney who took most of the key decisions‹from
hiding the president to authorising the shooting-down of suspicious
aircraft‹while Mr Bush was holed up in Nebraska.

 September 11th was a break from Mr Cheney's normal low-key style. In
general, he prefers to direct from behind rather than seize the wheel. From
the first, he exploited his boss's penchant for focusing on the big picture
in order to control the details. He packed the second tier of the
administration with allies such as Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Luti and Stephen
Hadley. And he created an axis of influence with Donald Rumsfeld, the man
who had given him his first break in national politics, and who shares his
no-nonsense view of the world.

 Mr Cheney's acceptance speech at last put paid to lively rumours that Mr
Bush was planning to dump him from the ticket in favour of somebody who
appeals more to swing voters: John McCain, for example. Mr Cheney is clearly
a drag on the ticket in purely electoral terms: the latest CNN/Gallup poll
finds as many Americans disliking him as liking him. But the rumours, in the
end, were hot air. Mr Cheney is so integral to the administration that to
dump him would be the equivalent of decapitating it.

 The vice-president's unique position raises a serious practical question:
what happens if he has another serious heart attack? (He has already had
four.) It also raises a serious political question: how well has Mr Cheney
used the power he has amassed with such Machiavellian cunning?

 In 2000 he was widely seen as the conservative movement's answer to
Washington's legendary wise men, such as Dean Acheson and George Kennan.
Nobody who studied Mr Cheney's biography, from his hard-right voting record
in Congress to his patronage of conservative intellectuals (the famous
Laffer curve was first sketched on his napkin), could doubt his ideological
bent. But he was one of the most experienced politicians in Washington: the
youngest White House chief of staff ever, a congressman for Wyoming and
defence secretary. He was careful to wrap his conservatism in the mantle of
common sense. Who better to restrain Mr Bush's more gung-ho Texan instincts?

 Mr Cheney also brought to his job a sharp sense of how dangerous the world
is. Thomas Hobbes used to remark that ³fear and I were born twins². The same
can be said of Mr Cheney. As a congressman, he boasted that he never met a
weapons system he didn't vote for; as defence secretary, he fiercely
resisted pressure for a post-cold-war peace dividend. He tried instead to
focus America's armed forces on ³new sources of instability² such as
terrorism and renegade regimes. This combination of a mastery of Washington
bureaucracy and a Hobbesian view of the world should have been perfect for
the post-September 11th world.

Ideology's dangers

But few people would now argue that Mr Cheney has lived up to his promise as
a wise man. The biggest mistakes of this administration, from the blithe
acceptance of soaring deficits to the insistence that Saddam Hussein
possessed weapons of mass destruction, have Mr Cheney's fingerprints all
over them. He resisted attempts to get both congressional and UN approval
for the invasion of Iraq. He has repeatedly favoured secrecy and ³executive
privilege² over consultation and compromise.

 Mr Cheney scored a few points in the administration's defence on Wednesday.
He pointed out that the tax cuts had helped to reignite an economy that was
sinking into recession. He argued that there was ³a difference between
leading a coalition of the many and submitting to the objections of a few².
But there are no excuses for swallowing Ahmed Chalabi's ³intelligence² hook,
line and sinker, nor for trampling over Congress.

 The cumulative effect of all these mistakes not only suggests a worrying
preference for ideology over common sense, but an arrogant indifference to
the checks and balances that are the glory of the American constitution.
During the Ford administration, the Secret Service gave Mr Cheney the
codename ³Backseat². One of the big questions facing America is whether this
particular backseat driver is taking his boss in the right direction.

  Copyright © 2004 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All
rights reserved.


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