July 08, 2004

Cheney as Grand Vizier

Lerxst writes about Cheney-as-Grand-Vizier:

Kautilyan: More on the Puppeteer: In May, the NYT's fearless reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, wrote a silly column (which I discussed here) suggesting that those who think Cheney is the power behind the Administration are part of the "Angry Left".

It looks like we can add Mark Schmitt and Maureen Dowd to the list.

UPDATE: We can add John Kerry now too...I sense some spine!


And I also have come to think that there may be some truth to the idea that Cheney is the driving intelligence behind the entire Bush presidency. The insistence on being interviewed together by the 9/11 commission is one huge hint; the many instances in which Cheney seems to speak for the administration but with a tone and argument totally unrelated to Bush's, is another. The fact that Bush sometimes gets his message into line with Cheney's, rather than the other way around, speaks volumes.


President Bush should have easily knocked a question about Mr. Edwards — nicknamed the Breck Girl by Bush officials — out of the park. But he whiffed. Steve Holland of Reuters noted that Senator Edwards was being described "as charming, engaging, a nimble campaigner, a populist and even sexy. How does he stack up against Dick Cheney?"

W. should have given a sly smile and drawled, "You mean you don't find Vice sexy?" Instead, he looked irritated and spit out his answer: "Dick Cheney can be president." Indeed, he already is.

(Of course, most of Dowd's column is her typical superficial pop-culture fare disguised as a metaphor for some deeper point that isn't actually there. In addition to "Breck girl" once again there is a reference to Botox).


Asked about the differences between Edwards and Cheney going into the November 2 presidential election, Bush replied tersely: "Dick Cheney can be president." [...]

Kerry said Bush was right one thing about Cheney. "He was right that Dick Cheney was ready to take over on day one, and he did, and he has been ever since, and that's what we've got to change."

What I am hearing from senior Republicans I talk to who talk to people who are in the administration is confused. There are three theories about what is going on:

Theory 1 is, of course, that everything is wonderful. Theory 1 is that the Republican Party by accident stumbled upon a secret of American politics: that the presidency is too big a job for anyone. In 1981, therefore, they accidently divided the presidency into two: Ronald Reagan was Head-of-State, and gave speeches, and awarded medals, and went to events, and waved at the American people; James Baker was Head-of-Government, and did the job of running the country and the administration. Things fell apart in Reagan's second term when Baker decided he was sick of having all the work and little of the glory, decided he wanted to be Treasury Secretary, and switched jobs with Donald Regan. But once you got a new and competent Chief-of-Staff--Howard Baker--in as Head-of-Government, the machine hummed once again.

George W. Bush is, on this theory, a second-rate Ronald Reagan: somebody who can do the job of Head-of-State (although he does not excel at it), and leave the running of the government to those who know policy and politics: Cheney as Grand Vizier, with Andy Card as his deputy running the White House, Donald Rumsfeld as his deputy running foreign policy, and (originally) Paul O'Neill as his deputy running domestic policy. O'Neill didn't work out and had to be replaced. Colin Powell has still not quite internalized the fact that Donald Rumsfeld is *really* in charge of foreign policy--holds the job of deputy to the Vice President for foreign affairs. But otherwise things have gone fine: Cheney has headed up the government apparatus and made the tough and dangerous decisions, while George W. Bush has done the meeting-and-greeting.

Theory 2 is the other side of the coin that is theory 1. It is that George W. Bush is indeed Head-of-State and that Richard Cheney is Head-of-Government, but that Cheney is not a qualified and competent administrator-policymaker but incompetent, irrational, short-sighted, and no longer up to the job: a guy whose theory of government is "who the hell knows? And this will please the base." If only Cheney could be levered out of power, and a new Head-of-Government installed--a strong Chief-of-Staff (i.e., not Andrew Card)--things would be fine.

Theory 3 is that George W. Bush was supposed to be Head-of-State, but that those who thought he would be satisfied to let other, wiser heads run the government were guilty of wishful thinking: that George W. Bush wants to be Head-of-Government as well. When he makes decisions, he makes snap judgments based on inadequate information (i.e., that the American economy's biggest problem is "SEC overreach"), and he will not revisit a decision once it has been made. Thus the task of managing George W. Bush is a ticklish one. He's not curious enough to seek out information on his own. So you have to (a) present him with a lump of information that will push him in the direction you want him to go and then (b) get him to immediately make the decision you want him to make--all the while guarding against your bureaucratic enemies who want the decision to go the other way.

This theory 3 is close to Mark Schmitt's picture of George W. Bush as a "frightened, confused individual, totally unable to understand the magnitude of the decisions he got talked into making, and dealing with it by becoming paralyzed, letting the individuals who represent power centers within his administration, such as Rove, Powell, Wolfowitz, Cheney and Rice run off entirely on their own. Those who are able to manage the president's message, such as Cheney, are at a bureacratic advantage." But don't think of him as being paralyzed: think of him as being easily led by the briefer-of-the-day: as Kent Smetters wrote to Paul O'Neill in his understated way: "The person who gives the President the verbal background briefing will play an important role in affecting the President's decision-making process."

Which of these theories is correct? I don't believe Theory 1--I don't believe that the American government has been honestly and competently led over the past 3 1/2 years, whether by Cheney or by somebody else. I don't have enough information to decide between theories 2 and 3.

The frustrating thing is that the elite White House press corps does, in all probability, have the information to decide between theories 2 and 3. Yet with a few exceptions (Ron Suskind, I believe, plumps for theory 3), they aren't saying what they think. They need to find a way to do so.

Posted by DeLong at July 8, 2004 03:02 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

"It is an infallible rule that a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice.... If a prince who is not experienced should take counsel from more than one he will never get united counsels, nor will he know how to unite them. Each of the counsellors will think of his own interests, and the prince will not know how to control them or to see through them."

---Machiavelli, The Prince (Chap. 23)

I used to think this insight only applied to Bush, but now I see it applies to all of his advisers as well. It really doesn't matter which of these clowns is flying the plane, the truth is they're all too blinded by their own megalomania.

For what it's worth, my money's on theories 2 and 3 too. There's no doubt Bush's "ideas" sometimes gum up the works (like going to the UN in 2002), but Cheney's original "ideas" (like hitting Iraq alone), are disasters on their own.

Posted by: Carl on July 8, 2004 03:23 PM


I keep having this strange feeling that I've seen Cheney before, long, long ago. He was wearing a white navy uniform and warning us of the dangers of terrorism, but that time in a spanish-speaking country.

Posted by: CSTAR on July 8, 2004 03:50 PM


It seems to me that -- over and over again -- we're talking about 1)failure of an administration, 2) failure of the American people to allow them to get away with it (with everything), but most of all 3) failure of periodistas who are in touch with the administration and who are well able to do their jobs and inform the voters but have not done so.

When we ragged army come down from the hills, it will not just be Peron and Batista who will be hung in the public square, but Bob Woodward and all those credentialed finks who will hang alongside, and this Che will applaud their fate.

Posted by: Bean on July 8, 2004 04:07 PM


Sorry -- that should read "2) failure of the American people to prevent them from getting away..." For some reason, the comment box refuses to enlarge to full screen, making revision almost impossible!

Posted by: Bean on July 8, 2004 04:13 PM


Subtle cognitive deficits are said to be a common adverse side effect of cardiac bypass operations (http://www.apa.org/monitor/may01/bypass.html).

Posted by: jm on July 8, 2004 04:21 PM


I wonder if Cheney ever tells Bush to go fuck himself. Not to suggest that it'd make any difference...

Posted by: Tom Marney on July 8, 2004 04:25 PM


Story 2 is supported by the 9/11 reactions, Bush does nothing for minutes, while Cheney seemingly breaks the chain of command and gives orders.
However, I suggest we concentrate on voting them both out of office, and let the historians have their say when the dust settles.

Posted by: Dick Durata on July 8, 2004 04:42 PM


I vacillate but tend toward 3). It sometimes crosses my mind that Cheney and Rumsfeld, who the best at controlling the idiot-king, have actually done the country a great service. You laugh, but they may have restrained Bush from even greater disastrous decisions than we can imagine.

And I assume the day-to-day atmosphere surrounding a man who makes decisions intuitively, and then never reverses himself or admits a mistake, must be terrifying.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on July 8, 2004 04:54 PM


i must continue to read this blog and its comments, it may keep me focused enough to feel the urgent need to "change regimes" here at home. the alternative doesn't always keep me that focused. i hope, desire, pray, scream for more......but focus step by step thanks friends

Posted by: michael olden on July 8, 2004 04:58 PM


Lady thatcher once told Gorby that no democracy had ever declared war on another democracy. This was a somewhat arguable point at the time but broadly speaking accurate.

Thatcher thought that the reason for this was that democracies make rational decisions and wars of aggression have long since ceased to be a rational policy.

I tend now to the view that most wars are started by weak and incompetent leaders and that when a democracy is functioning people of that sort simply do not make it to positions of power.

The only reason that Bush got into the Whitehouse is that the republican press corps told nothing but lies about Gore and Bush in the 2000 election. They deliberately covered up the fact that Bush is weak, stupid and incompetent, pretending instead that this phony plutocrat was just a regular guy.

If the press had been doing its job in 2000 Bush would not have made the nomination let alone won the election.

Posted by: Phill on July 8, 2004 05:03 PM


Bob Woodward's account in "Plan of Attack" supports Theory 3.

Posted by: Russil Wvong on July 8, 2004 05:05 PM


Theory #4: Flush them all down the toilet of history and then Theories 1-3 are pointlessly moot.

Posted by: Alan on July 8, 2004 05:37 PM


“Of course, most of Dowd's column is her typical superficial pop-culture fare disguised as a metaphor for some deeper point that isn't actually there.”

You may be underestimating Dowd a bit here. While your point is sometimes valid, check out or re-read this pearl,
“The Iceman Cometh” (Dowd NYT, May 4th 2004) http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0504-04.htm, with Eugene O’Neill’s in the background.

Posted by: ojb on July 8, 2004 05:40 PM


Hybrid between Theory 2 and Theory 3. George W. Bush is content to allow Cheney et al. decide much government policy, but he meddles in areas where he believes he has some divine calling or otherwise feels strongly. This hybrid situation only increases the disorganization and confusion because the players cannot be sure when Bush will want to make a decision.

Posted by: blah on July 8, 2004 05:41 PM


Ivo Daalder would say three.

Posted by: asdf on July 8, 2004 06:54 PM


Bean says:
For some reason, the comment box refuses to enlarge to full screen, making revision almost impossible!

If you're using Windoze, right click comments and select open in a new window. You get a new IE window which is resizable.

Posted by: Charles M on July 8, 2004 07:35 PM


Bean says:
For some reason, the comment box refuses to enlarge to full screen, making revision almost impossible!

If you're using Windoze, right click comments and select open in a new window. You get a new IE window which is resizable.

Posted by: Charles M on July 8, 2004 07:35 PM


Moderates have become a lot easier to talk to in the last three years. It must be the precession of the equinox, or maybe the Great Millenium Shift. I'm keeping my eyes open for the plague of frogs.

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson on July 8, 2004 07:36 PM


I'm inclined towards theory three. To admit to onself, "I'm not really qualified for this job--I should let Chenny make the decisions while I do the photo ops," requires a greater degree of self-honesty and self-esteem than I see in Bush.

Woodward's last two books indicate that Bush is the ultimate decision maker. Woodward's primary source of information is the Bush administration, but my impression is that he does a reasonable job of getting at the facts. If you believe that Woodward got things generally right (with a bit of White House spin slipping in here and there), you have to reject theory two.

Posted by: Kenneth Almquist on July 8, 2004 07:51 PM


I thought the rule was: No country with a McDonald's franchise has ever declared war on another country with a McDonald's? (I think it's not entirely true but holds for the U.S.)

I believe Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz are very intelligent, cunning, and populist politicians ("players" if you want, rather than GWB and Ashcroft who would qualify as "tools"). They're just blindsided to an extent not seen since the Nixon Administration: Any policy initiative that bears the stamp of liberalism is automatically dismissed, without consideration whether it 1. has merit, or 2. might appeal to a majority of voters. In the sense of Popper/Soros, a closed belief system.

Posted by: ogmb on July 8, 2004 08:10 PM


Does anyone have access to the Economist's online archive? I remember early in GWB's term (when I still had a subscription) they had a number of op-ed pieces (possibly in Lexington) trying to rationaize why it wasn't such a dumb idea to have a dumb president. (The main thrust was that dumb managers realize their shortcomings and delegate while smart managers don't want to cede control to dumber underlings. It had all the markings of A Great New Management Philosophy.) I would love to find those articles again, just to rub them in their faces.

Posted by: ogmb on July 8, 2004 08:24 PM


I lean towards a modified three. The key is Bush trusts very few people so he uses the ones he trusts such as Rice to manage the others. As long as Rice sides with the NeoCons, they stay. When she shifts as she will they go. I think Rove plays a similar role. I think Cheney is a father figure since Bush does not really respect his parents.

Posted by: Barry O'Connell on July 8, 2004 09:09 PM


It’s an interesting question. I think it was Carter who first intimated that the Presidency is barely manageable.

Contra theory 1, I believe Bush calls the shots on politics, but doesn’t care that much about policies, so long as they fit into politics. Then, part of theory 3 can fit: policy briefers can influence his decision-making because it’s of secondary importance. He is not paralyzed, although “confused” would require a long essay...

Contra theory 2, I think Cheney and Rumsfeld know their turf well enough to be “qualified”, but they have preconceived notions, presume too much, tend to shut out adverse opinions, misconstrue the motives of others, and therefore can’t see the possible future very well. This may drive away all but their yes-men.

I think the big secret to these guys is they may ALL be a little frightened. You could start seeing it in their faces in the early months of this year.

I think they calculated that the U.S. had a window, as the lone superpower after the Cold War, to clean out some festering bad guys, and they thought keeping alliances didn’t matter as much. They even misled the U.S. public about the threat, because they believed that in the reflected glory of the presumed results, we’d all forgive their little white lies. They took a chance, and it didn’t pay off. Now they’re in over their heads. In the long term, we’re looking at a possible melding of terror and nationalism. In the short term, we’re still losing soldiers, which must anguish them mightily--and there’s no soon end to it.

Now they’re looking at having to spin this mess just to win the next election. This could start to smell a little sour...

As for the dishonesty in economic, social, and environmental policy, I think that’s of different provenance: it’s just pigs at the trough--Republican class warfare. We get the same crap out of Congress.

Posted by: Lee A. on July 8, 2004 10:16 PM


Bean, at least with Mozilla Firefox on Windows, the full-screen icon on the top bar is disabled, but the resize grip in the lower-right corner works just fine. Not that that will do you much good, since the text entry box has a fixed size (10 rows by 50 columns). My HTML book indicates that setting the size is mandatory, and that they don't ever resize with the browser window. I agree that it would be nice if Moveable Type provided a bigger TEXTAREA widget in a somewhat larger window.

Posted by: Michael Cain on July 8, 2004 10:36 PM


Lerxst seems to be claiming that he knows lots of prominent Republicans and not one of them claims that Bush is a competent head of government. True if interesting.

So we have decided that Bush is not Reagan after all. Who is he ? Brad once suggested Selim the Sot and admitted that it was unfair. Grossly unfair, after all, Selim inherited an Ottoman empire in irreversible decline not a healthy democracy.

The key question now is -- did Selim hand his Grand Vizier the silk noose before or after the Ottoman convention ? I mean what is the point of history if you can't use it to predict the election ?

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on July 9, 2004 06:06 PM


Excellent Post. Truly. ( Now I'm kind of sorry for my snarky jab at Brad on the Ehrenreich post above )

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