Vice President Dick Cheney went on national television Sunday morning to draw an emphatic line in the sand: The White House will not turn over documents to Congress's General Accounting Office regarding meetings Cheney had with energy-industry executives last year, when he chaired the administration's energy policy task force. Interest in the task force's work has only intensified with the spectacular collapse of Enron, since the company's executives were among those invited into Cheney's inner circle to advise on energy policy. The GAO is expected to sue the White House this week in an effort to obtain the information.
But if Cheney hoped his tough talk on Sunday would rally the troops, he might be surprised to discover that many conservative pundits, usually the GOP's faithful cavalry during ideological wars, have already abandoned the White House on the Enron question, as well as on the issue of Cheney's energy task force secrecy.
This rare public split between the administration and its media faithful highlights just how toxic the Enron scandal may be. Clearly, nervous conservatives see a political dark side as new revelations continue to tumble out and polls suggest the company's collapse is taking a greater political toll on Republicans than on Democrats. The split also makes clear that it was wishful thinking to suggest that the Enron story was a business scandal, not a political one, unless someone could come up with solid evidence of a White House quid pro quo for all that campaign cash. Even Kate O'Beirne of the conservative National Review conceded that on CNN over the weekend: "It's taken hold in Washington and it is not going away. It will be a big political story."
Suddenly, more and more White House-friendly pundits don't like what they're seeing from the administration, and specifically its attempt to manage the Enron story.
Conservative press corps dean Robert Novak began the backlash in his Jan. 21 Chicago Sun-Times column, belittling the White House's "inept handling of the Enron scandal," pointing specifically at the White House insistence on secrecy about Vice President Cheney's energy task force. That wrong-headed decision, wrote Novak, sprang from the "arrogance of power."
On CNN's "Capitol Gang" on Sunday, Novak reiterated the point, insisting Cheney's stubborn refusal to cooperate with the GAO was "a huge mistake."
Others on the right have come to the same conclusion. Appearing on CNN's "Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer," the National Review's Jonah Goldberg conceded: "This is a bad position for Cheney to be in," adding, "As a matter of politics, I think he's got to give up."
Christopher Caldwell of the Weekly Standard agreed: "This is really about the politics of it, and it is going to come out eventually, and he might as well get rid of it now. He's got to disclose the whole thing."
Republican die-hard (and former Enron speechwriter) Peggy Noonan has gone even further. Writing on the normally Bush-friendly Wall Street Journal's editorial page, she not only suggested the administration consider appointing a special prosecutor to look into Enron -- something not even congressional critic Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has proposed -- but she also wrote that the White House should simply waive its right to executive privilege when it comes to information about Cheney's energy task force:
"If the administration continues to resist the request for documents and fight in the courts, its victory may well be Pyrrhic and its potential loss even more painful," Noonan wrote. "Because as long as the administration doesn't come forward with everything, the issue remains alive and potent for the opposition's use."
James Pinkerton, Newsday columnist and former White House staffer for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, piled on last week: "Will the collapse of a company in Houston damage the man in the White House? The president doesn't seem worried, and his arrogant and careless attitude toward disclosure and appointments proves it."
And then this from the Feb. 11 issue of the National Review: "The administration should disclose information about the Cheney energy task force and about Enron contacts with administration officials. The administration appears to be beyond reproach in this matter. It should do itself the favor of acting like it."
The scuffle between the conservative media and the White House could serve to confirm what Democrats have argued for the last year: The administration puts the interests of its corporate friends above all others -- and in this case, that loyalty could cost Bush and Cheney politically. As part of their tough-talk campaign, White House officials insist they're ready and willing to be dragged into court to protect their right to private consultation with corporate advisors. But judging from the reaction to date from the right, there won't be many friend-of-the-court filings on Cheney's behalf.