Why Bush won’t

Sidney Blumenthal

In Washington, political identities cultivated over decades can crumble in a minute. Vice President Dick Cheney presides, under the constitution, as president of the Senate and is addressed as ``Mr President’’, but former representative Cheney is not a man of the Senate.

Cheney’s executive branch credentials were as President Ford’s wunderkind chief of staff and elder Bush’s secretary of defence, but on the Hill he is remembered as the former house Republican whip during the Reagan period, his only previous elected position. The self-control that had served him so long broke down in public on June 22 on the floor of the Senate during a photo session. As Cheney was posing with members, Senator Patrick Leahy ambled over. Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the judiciary committee, had recently been critical, along with other Democrats, of no-bid contracts in Iraq granted to Halliburton, the company Cheney had run and in which he still holds stock options and receives deferred compensation (despite his prior claims to the contrary).

Cheney’s spokesman appeared to deny that those words had been spoken: ``That doesn’t sound like language the vice president would use.’’ But Cheney raced on to Fox News to hail himself as courageous for emotional authenticity. Then he elaborated that his ejaculation was an administration policy. Leahy’s seeming civility, he explained, was just a charade. A main source of Cheney’s effectiveness and image of competence has been his ability to avoid putting his cards on the table. But in a moment of pique, he dropped the entire deck. His game face fell and his malicious streak broke through. Cheney’s blandness had suggested he was deliberate, experienced and imperturbable. In the first Bush administration, victory in the Gulf war solidified that reputation. When the president was defeated, Cheney was not. He emerged from those ashes unscathed.

Bush’s executive branch has been concentrated in Cheney. He has been as powerful as Quayle was irrelevant. It was Cheney who said to UN weapons inspector Hans Blix as he embarked on his mission to Iraq: ``We will not hesitate to discredit you’’; Cheney who personally tried to force the CIA to give credence to Ahmed Chalabi’s fabricated and false evidence on WMD; Cheney who, along with Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld (to whom he was deputy in the Nixon White House), undermined Secretary of State Colin Powell at every turn; and it is Cheney who is the neo-conservatives’ godfather.

It is worth remembering that Cheney’s link to the neo-cons largely developed after the last Bush administration. Even before his outburst, Cheney had come to stand for special interests, secrecy and political coercion. Under the stress of Bush’s falling polls, he cracked.

Bush still strains to project optimism and cast the Democrats as demagogic pessimists. His campaign this week produced a commercial, ``John Kerry’s coalition of the wild-eyed’’, that featured snippets of Al Gore, Howard Dean, Michael Moore and Kerry criticising Bush.

Perhaps the grandest political gesture Bush could make would be dropping Cheney. When Cheney bursts through his mask, he reveals not only his own face, but Bush’s. After all, where would it leave Jeb Bush in 2008? ``Dumping Cheney would be seen as a sign of weakness. Cheney is very popular in the party.’’ The Bush campaign’s premise depends on turning out the maximum Republican vote. Bush can no more repudiate Cheney than he can repudiate himself. Cheney will never hear from Bush the words he hurled at Leahy. — The Guardian, London