Who’s Really President?

Rove or Cheney?

Karl Rove is “the center of all power in the White House.” But Dick Cheney is the White House’s “supreme power broker.”

Cheney is the “most influential member of the Bush team.” But Rove is the “most influential presidential aide in two decades.”

According to Time, Rove is “the Busiest Man in Washington.” According to Time, Cheney is the administration’s “John Henry.”

Cheney is “uniquely powerful.” On the other hand, “no one, with the possible exception of the President, will be more responsible for the success or failure of Bush’s presidency” than Rove.

Says Newsweek of Rove: “[He] has a hand in virtually every decision the president makes.” Says Time of Cheney: “There is almost no major issue that doesn’t feel his touch.” (This is certainly a hands-on administration.)

It’s enough to drive a poor influence-peddler crazy. If you need a wheel greased, who should you call? “The Indispensable Man” (Cheney)? Or “the man to see in Washington” (Rove)? If you’re measuring influence, which is better: Cheney spending “half the working day” with W., or Rove talking “constantly” on the phone to Bush? Is Rove the shadow president? Or is Cheney?

This week has brought more conflicting evidence. Rove has almost single-handedly blocked the administration from permitting stem-cell research. Most Americans, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, and lots of top Republican politicians say it’s a scientific and ethical good. Rove says it could alienate Catholic voters. Cheney, meanwhile, rushed back to the office a day after heart surgery, a frantic return that confirmed the Democratic suspicion that the White House—and President Bush—would collapse without him.

Naturally, administration folks—especially Cheney and Rove—insist President Bush is President Bush. He is the chairman, the CEO. He says jump, they say how high, etc. But Bush is a hands-off president—that’s why Rove and Cheney have their hands in everything—and it’s clear his underlings are remarkably powerful.

Who you believe is shadow president depends on your worldview. If you think the presidency is essentially politics, Rove is your man. If you believe the presidency is process, Cheney is.

Rove, officially Bush’s senior adviser, is grandmaster of all things strategic and political. (This was a job Bill Clinton kept for himself.) His basic duty is to do whatever it takes to re-elect Bush in 2004. On Vieques, Puerto Rico, it was Rove who decided—without significantly consulting the president or defense secretary—that the administration would stop bombing runs in a couple of years. Rove calculated that the halt would please Hispanics. White House polling is funneled through Rove, and he uses the data to modify administration strategy. When Bush was pummeled for being anti-green and pro-energy, Rove decided the administration would emphasize environmental initiatives and back-burner drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Rove is the pooh-bah of national party politics: He helped install Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore as chairman of the RNC. When a bitter primary fight threatened GOP chances in a Minnesota Senate race recently, Rove was instrumental in persuading one of the candidates to withdraw.

Rove also handles the administration’s relations with interest groups, particularly the religious right. Republicans learned in Bush I that they dare not alienate the conservative base. So Rove has almost total freedom to do whatever he wants to satisfy them. Thanks to Rove, the White House may get involved in the Sudanese civil war—exactly the kind of complex, intractable, irrelevant-to-American-interests conflict that candidate Bush said the United States should avoid. But Christian conservatives are enraged by Muslim abuse (and sometimes enslavement) of Christian rebels and have recruited Rove to help them. Similarly, Rove has blocked stem-cell research in service to religious conservatives. And Rove has guided some of the marketing of Bush’s faith-based bill, even establishing an outside lobbying group to help give the proposal juice.

Vice President Cheney also has a job that Clinton reserved for himself. Cheney is president of everything beige, the dull but essential questions of process and policy. Cheney dominated the transition and got his favorites installed in key positions in the administration—including Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. As “prime minister,” Cheney runs much of the day-to-day business of the administration. Cheney, for example, directed the budget-review process, settling disagreements between Cabinet secretaries without taking them to the president. Cheney serves as the White House delegate to Congress, acting as lobbyist-in-chief on issues such as the tax cut.

His portfolio also includes authority over the administration’s most complicated issues. Cheney—the ambassador to corporate America as well as Congress—conducted the pro-business energy-policy review. By virtue of his experience as defense secretary, he has been granted an enormous say in national security policy. Cheney refocused the administration on missile defense and is commanding an anti-terrorism task force.

Rove and Cheney, in short, have worked out an effective division of labor. Cheney, a vice president who has no particular political ambitions, is the adult on unglamorous issues of policy and process. Rove, who has nothing but political ambitions, is responsible for interest-group massaging, symbolic politicking, and doling out favors (which is probably why Rove is meeting with executives from Intel—read Timothy Noah’s attack on Rove’s Intel ethics in this “Chatterbox”). The arrangement works perfectly for Bush. Rove manages the messy special-interest jockeying that can embarrass a president, while Cheney takes care of the knotty substantive issues that Bush doesn’t have patience for. It is a balanced co-presidency, one shadow president for doing, and one for scheming.