Cheney’s Dreadful Lack of Ambition

We’d be better off if the vice president were running in 2008.

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Cheney: ain’t tryin’ to impress nobody

Today, Dick Cheney was dispatched to the friendly confines of the American Enterprise Institute to try to reverse the momentum for troop pullouts from Iraq. “A precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would be a victory for the terrorists, an invitation to further violence against free nations, and a terrible blow to the future security of the United States of America.” The vice president argued against “self-defeating” pessimism in America and pushed back against the president’s critics who say Bush manipulated prewar intelligence. Cheney’s message was the one he has delivered often in the last five years: The White House isn’t budging.

In a traditional political marriage, the vice president would be too nervous about his political future to give such a full-throated endorsement of unpopular policies and kiss-offs to politicians in both parties. Only 37 percent of Americans approve of the job Bush is doing, and 54 percent say the Iraq war was a mistake. Normally, a vice president would want to distance himself from those growing problems. The people who raise money for his coming presidential campaign would be on the phone demanding it. We need checks from moderates too, they’d say, and women are not writing checks at all. A wealthy industrialist somewhere would accuse the vice president of hurting the party. GOP politicians would also be quietly telling him to distance himself from Bush. If the vice president wanted their future political support, they would hint, he should praise their effort to quicken troop withdrawals.

Dick Cheney doesn’t have to worry about any of that. That’s the great thing about Dick Cheney. That’s why he could give such a strong speech today. He has no political ambitions. Bush aides have been bragging about that since he was asked to leave Halliburton to come back to Washington. “He speaks with the authority of the president,” his former top aide Mary Matalin told me in 2001, “because everyone understands the vice president has no personal agenda.” Cheney thinks this way about himself, too. He immediately framed his job as an exercise in selfless devotion when I interviewed him the day after Bush picked him. “He’s got a very important trait for a leader,” he said describing Bush, “the ability to convince people to set their personal desires aside for the greater good.”

The theory in 2000 was this: With no political ambition, Cheney could dive into the details of policy and do the right thing without having to worry about how it might hurt him for his next campaign. He would never have to separate himself from the president and therefore could be a trusted adviser. (Cheney’s loyalty was a crucial selling point for George W. Bush, who had watched selfish aides undermine his father’s presidency.)

Five years later, it looks a little different. Just because Cheney lacks a personal political ambition doesn’t mean he’s lacked a personal ideological agenda. He has been able to pursue that agenda without compromise. He followed his determined ideas for strengthening the executive branch and America’s place in the world with no fear of political damage. Since he didn’t need Congress or the press as much as he might have if he were a potential candidate, Cheney dismissed them almost the minute he came back to Washington. His energy task force operated in secret and told no one about its operations. Congress and outside groups sued to gain access and lost. When it came time for war, he stepped up his calls for executive authority, endorsing detention and interrogation policies that became the focus of international condemnation. His overly dire predictions about Saddam Hussein’s weapons and optimistic ones about the progress of the Iraq war undermined his credibility. His approval rating now stands at 36 percent.

Disillusioned former Cheney friends describe the Veep as if the total political freedom brought on madness. “I consider Cheney a good friend,” former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft told TheNew Yorker. “I’ve known him for thirty years. But Dick Cheney I don’t know anymore.” Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill described to author Ron Suskind seeking guidance from the vice president about how to improve debate within the White House. He got grumbles, and then it hit him. “I realized why Dick just nodded along when I said all of this, over and over, and nothing ever changed,” O’Neill said. “This is the way Dick likes it.”

Cheney didn’t have to stay on message. He suggested Iraq might have had links to the attacks on 9/11 even though President Bush denied such ties. When asked if the insurgency would be a problem after the war, he declared that it would not because American soldiers would be greeted as liberators. More recently, he suggested that the insurgency was in its “last throes.” Not true, said military advisers. If Cheney had to worry about his political future he would have realized that future voters hearing about explosions every night on the news would have found such an assertion absurd on its face. But he didn’t have to worry about having his rosy assessment thrown back at him in a future presidential debate.

Despite his lowered standing, Bush knows he can keep using Cheney for unpopular assignments because in theory, his approval ratings can drop to zero and Cheney won’t balk. So, Cheney has taken up opposition to John McCain’s amendment that would restrict “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” of American military prisoners. The president can’t argue the case directly, and he certainly can’t argue it in public, so he lets Cheney do his dirty work for him. Internally, says Colin Powell’s former chief of staff Larry Wilkerson, Cheney’s political freedom allowed him to sway the rest of the administration. “There’s no question in my mind where the philosophical guidance and the flexibility in order to [torture] originated—in the vice president of the United States’ office,” Wilkerson told CNN’s Late Edition yesterday.

Cheney has been so extreme in various ways, usually at his president’s behest, that he has marginalized himself from being able to reach out to nonbelievers in a useful way. In the end, Dick Cheney’s lack of political ambition may have been no better for the administration than if he had spent the past five years trying to position himself to run against Hillary Clinton.