Rummy Death Watch No. 2: Can Liberals Save Him?

Donald Rumsfeld continues to face steep odds that he’ll hang on to his job as Defense secretary. The latest blow is the news that Rumsfeld has given up trying to shape the Pentagon budget himself and will let the military services set their own priorities. A possibly fatal admission of weakness from the one-time proponent of a Revolution in Military Affairs! “Where’s the revolution here?” sneered defense consultant Loren B. Thompson to Vernon Loeb of the Washington Post. More to the point: How can you get a rational defense budget when you let four notoriously rivalrous and turf-conscious services set their own priorities without imposing some discipline from above? Liberals, who until now have seen Rumsfeld only as the proponent of the missile shield they oppose, are starting to criticize him for tolerating spending waste in the defense budget. Today the New York Times editorial page weighs in with the observation that Rumsfeld “may be losing his nerve about cutting unneeded weapons programs.” Rummy “has stumbled in the early innings,” the Times says, and “needs to mend his ties with Capitol Hill in the months ahead.” Ouch!

Conservatives continue to see Rumsfeld as the victim of an unsupportive and risk-averse White House, but that doesn’t do much to burnish Rumsfeld’s image. An Aug. 17 National Review Online article by Rich Lowry headlined “Rumsfeld, Fall Guy” begins, “How can Don Rumsfeld–the two-time Secretary of Defense, the world-conquering businessman, strategic thinker, and GOP operator, the foremost stud of the Bush Cabinet–possibly be failing?” Ouch!

The only way Chatterbox sees for Rumsfeld to dig himself out is to sweet-talk the Democrats. The Times editorial, Chatterbox notes with interest, expresses some sympathy for Rumsfeld’s Revolution in Military Affairs, even though that revolution would include a missile shield, which the Times doesn’t much care for. Is it possible liberals are playing a deep game? Rehabilitate Rumsfeld, and you probably guarantee that the missile shield will be starved for funds because it will be crowded out in the budget by all the other wasteful programs the individual services are pushing. But it’s a tricky play. Rehabilitate Rumsfeld too much, and he might acquire sufficient power to regain control of the defense budget and build as big a missile shield as he likes. And of course, if Rumsfeld is embraced by liberals, that probably won’t do much to endear him to Dubya, the guy who gets to decide whether Rummy stays or goes. At best, it might keep Rumsfeld in office a month or two longer than Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, the other Cabinet secretary who’s in some peril of losing his job. (Rob Norton’s “lay off O’Neill” essay in the Aug. 19 WashingtonPost is itself evidence that O’Neill’s in trouble. Incidentally, the fact that both of these men were brought in on the advice of Dick Cheney can’t be good news for Cheney’s shadow presidency.)