Dick Cheney's glass house

As Bush's hatchet man, he's carving up John Kerry as soft on al-Qaida -- and making his own history of ignoring terror threats and cutting defense programs fair game.

By Joe Conason
Published March 21, 2004 1:26AM (EST)

Emerging from the security of his undisclosed location onto the electoral battlefield, with hatchet in hand, Dick Cheney appears eager to prove his mettle as the president's designated executioner. Whatever he may lack in physical energy for this unpleasant task, he will compensate with experience and zeal. But as White House political strategists and speechwriters cheer him on, they may ask the same question that occurs to other observers: Is Cheney an asset or a liability in this campaign?

The latest numbers certainly are not flattering to the vice president. National Favorability surveys show that outside the Republican base he is distinctly unpopular and becoming more so. In three polls taken this month, his favorable ratings have dipped to 35 percent or lower. When the Harris poll asked voters last month to rate his job performance, 41 per cent answered "excellent or pretty good," while 48 percent answered "only fair or poor."

Although Cheney doesn't exude charm, his declining stature is not merely an image problem. He never embraced "compassionate conservatism," perhaps because few would believe him if he did. Instead, he has come to represent everything that Americans like least about the Bush administration, from right-wing rigidity to corporate profiteering to serial prevarication. His powerful office is the nexus of suspicion in the Halliburton contract scandal, the faked Niger uranium story, the Valerie Plame leak, the Energy Task Force coverup, the 9/11 investigation, and the distortion of Iraq intelligence.

In recent months, speculation that the vice president will be dropped from the Republican ticket at next September's convention has intensified. President Bush assures supporters that he has no plans to dump Cheney, and he probably doesn't. The president's repeated endorsements haven't quelled the critical rumbling from Cheney's old colleagues in the first Bush administration, or the tantalizing rumor that Rudolph Giuliani is waiting to take his place.

A prominent Washington conservative says such scenarios are mere fantasy. "If they were going to get rid of him, they would have started to prepare the public and the press with little leaks about his heart condition. Anyway, it's too late for another reason -- because if they dump him at the convention, they will look as if they're admitting that the attacks on him and the administration are substantively true. They would be confirming their critics. And to be honest, it's hard to imagine how they would function without him in a second term."

Cheney's likely political survival will signal the persistence of the highly ideological policies that have become associated with him, notably the aggressively unilateral foreign policy that demanded war in Iraq, and the corporate-dominated energy and economic policies that would decimate the last century's legacy of progressive government. First, however, he will have to help take down John Kerry.

By temperament, the jut-jawed, acerbic executive seems perfectly suited to this assignment. But in the last election, he endured nothing more painful than a prolonged gumming by his old friend Joe Lieberman. This time, he may well face opponents who equal him and Bush in aggression and determination. Cheney is smart and sharp-tongued, but he often blurts out remarks so ill-considered and so arrogant that he sounds like a fool.

Back in 1989, as the ultra-hawkish secretary of defense, Cheney explained the multiple deferments that exempted him from Vietnam service (and may have inspired the birth of his first child) with a casual quip: "I had other priorities in the '60s than military service." During his televised debate with Lieberman on "Meet the Press" in October 2000, he ludicrously boasted that "the government had absolutely nothing to do with" the millions of dollars he accumulated as chief executive of Halliburton. His litany of alarmist statements about Iraq's awesome arsenal and terrorist ties was so replete with falsehood that CIA director George Tenet could not avoid rebuking him publicly.

Thanks to his status as a longtime Washington insider, Cheney has enjoyed a degree of immunity from the national press corps. That could change soon if his sole role in this campaign is to dismantle the character and credentials of Kerry -- whose own record of public and military service contrasts so starkly with his. Aside from nonsense about Boston and Botox, the Republican assault on Kerry has revolved around his alleged softness concerning matters of national security. Both Cheney and Bush have articulated this spin. But in fact, the same accusations could be turned back on the vice president very easily.

In his speech at the Reagan Library, Cheney insinuated that the likely Democratic nominee would prove "entirely inadequate" in the fight against international terrorism, because he supposedly doesn't realize that we are "at war" with al-Qaida. In fact, Cheney himself is deeply vulnerable on this very point, if the Democrats have the courage to mention what he did -- or, more important, didn't do -- in the months before Sept. 11, 2001.

It was Cheney who dismissed the warnings of truly imminent danger from the previous administration's national security officials. It was Cheney who ignored the years of painstaking work by the Hart-Rudman Commission, insisting that he would chair his own anti-terror task force. It was Cheney who failed to act on that pledge between May 2001, when the president announced that he would head the administration's counterterror effort, and September, when catastrophe struck. No wonder he tried to bully the Congress into abandoning any investigation of 9/11.

Cheney's speech mocked Kerry's alleged "consistency" in opposing new military weapons systems. Aside from the fact that this argument conflates opposition to specific weapons with votes in broader budgetary debates, Cheney is guilty of hypocrisy here too -- as Democrats can demonstrate if they confront him. His speech specifically named "the Apache helicopter," among other systems. Yet as defense secretary, he presided over substantial cuts to precisely the kinds of weapons systems he now chides the Massachusetts senator for opposing -- including the Apache.

Indeed, Cheney killed several major weapons systems in those days -- including the Navy's a-12 Stealth fighter and the F-14D Tomcat fighter -- sometimes against the fervent recommendations of the armed services chiefs. He cut total troop strength by a half-million and closed more than three dozen military bases. He built far fewer Stealth bombers than the Air Force had wanted and cut back the production of armored tanks. His final budget in 1992 proposed a five year, $50 billion reduction in total defense expenditures. In the argot of GOP propaganda, that can be made to sound like surrender.

At the time, all of those decisions surely seemed responsible to him and others in government. The end of the Cold War called for reductions in the massive military budgets of the Reagan era. But if the Republicans want to start playing patriot games about terror strategies and military spending, then they should find someone else to distort the meaning of votes cast 10 or 20 years ago. Dick Cheney is too vulnerable to make sneering remarks about anyone else's record.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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Dick Cheney John F. Kerry