The Cheney Challenge

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, October 5, 2004; 11:10 AM

In the pre-debate spin game, it's hard to suggest that expectations should be low for the man who is widely considered to be the most powerful vice president in history and who some critics even call "the evil genius in the corner" -- as Vice President Cheney himself once joked.

But unlike at the vice presidential debate four years ago Cheney is now in the awkward position of defending an assailable record. Cheney has been the point man for many of the most disputed assertions made by the Bush administration.

Plus, the campaign clearly wants him to repair the damage inflicted by President Bush himself at last week's debate.

Although vice presidential debates are usually not historic in significance, a strong showing by Cheney -- not to mention a more eloquent and effective critique of Sen. John F. Kerry -- could potentially stop the polling hemorrhage.

And Cheney faces a final challenge. Particularly in the wake of Bush's grimacing performance, analysts agree that it is essential that he not let Democratic nominee John Edwards get under his skin -- and not say anything remotely like what he said to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on the Senate floor back in June.

How Powerful Is He?

By pretty much all accounts, Cheney was a major influence on Bush on two of his most significant and controversial decisions: To attack Iraq and cut tax rates for wealthy taxpayers.

He has arguably supplanted the role of national security adviser and stymied the secretary of state.

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Cheney, who tonight debates his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), is arguably the most powerful vice president in U.S. history. He is also the administration's essential man.

"He roams across the foreign and domestic policy landscape, identifying issues on which he can make a difference. When he chooses to insert himself into the process, he is a powerful force for resolving problems -- or an unmovable roadblock that thwarts the agenda of others, especially [Secretary of State Colin L.] Powell. . . .

"Although Cheney's impact is felt, he leaves few fingerprints, administration officials say."

Politics of Fear

Stevenson Swanson writes in the Chicago Tribune: "In the 1960s, Vice President Hubert Humphrey's upbeat style and ready grin were described as the politics of hope. Cheney, with his flat delivery and unrelenting focus on terrorism and national security, may be remembered as the master of the politics of fear.

"The taciturn Cheney speaks with an authority born of a distinctly personal knowledge of his subject. Far from the marginal role that most vice presidents have played, he is closely linked with many of the Bush administration's most controversial actions, especially the decision to invade Iraq."

Cheney's Job Tonight

Shailagh Murray and Greg Hitt write in the Wall Street Journal: "Less than 24 hours after the first Kerry-Bush clash in Miami last week, Bush aides were discussing how Mr. Cheney could use his debate to offer a more reasoned and detailed critique of Sen. Kerry, particularly concerning Iraq and national-security issues."

And Matt Stearns and Tim Funk write in the Detroit Free Press: "Cheney, who's far more controversial today than he was in 2000, must maintain his air of quiet command and not be goaded into grumpiness or saying something he might regret, analysts said."

The Cheney Moment

Bill Nichols writes in USA Today: "Tightening polls after last week's first presidential debate could make tonight's showdown between John Edwards and Dick Cheney a historic first: a vice presidential debate that plays a pivotal role in who becomes president."

Nichols predict that one "likely Edwards strategy: Challenge Cheney's assertions that Iraq had links to al-Qaeda. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Monday that he hadn't seen 'any strong, hard evidence' of such ties."

Halliburton Watch

Andrew Metz and James Toedtman in Newsday recall that it was the charge that Halliburton has been improperly profiting from government contracts in Iraq that caused Cheney to snap obscenely at Leahy (D-Vt.) on the Senate floor back in June.

"Four years after relinquishing the helm of one of the world's largest energy companies, Cheney has been unable to shrug off persistent and growing criticism about his stewardship of Halliburton and its intimate involvement in the administration's most serious undertaking: the war in Iraq."

Questions for Cheney

Alan Murray writes in the Political Capital column in the Wall Street Journal that a lot of the criticism of Cheney is unfounded.

"But there is one big question that Mr. Cheney does need to answer. More than anyone else in this administration, he provided questionable information about both the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the likely consequences of war with Iraq. In each case, he spoke with great conviction, as a man who had examined the evidence himself, and who wasn't just passing along the administration's line."

Dick Polman of Knight-Ridder Newspapers offers these questions: "Why has Cheney repeatedly claimed that there was 'overwhelming evidence' of an important link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, when, in reality, there was no demonstrable evidence? And why has he refused to renounce his claim, now that the 9/11 Commission has concluded that there was no 'established, formal' relationship?

"Why, in August 2002, did Cheney say 'there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,' even though there was strong dissent inside the government, particularly on the issue of nuclear capability? And was Cheney citing faulty intelligence, or ignoring good intelligence, when he predicted in September 2003 that 'my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators'?"

John Nichols, author of the book "Dick: The Man Who is President" suggests 10 questions for Cheney in the Nation. Among them: "When you appeared on NBC's 'Meet the Press' on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, you announced that, 'We will be greeted as liberators.' In light of the fact that more than 1,000 young Americans have been killed, while more than 20,000 have been wounded, in the fighting in Iraq, do you think you might have been a bit too optimistic?"

Here are some other pointed questions that could be asked of Cheney:

• You have taken steps to legally insulate yourself from any charge of conflict of interest. But can you understand how American voters might conclude that you are beholden to a company that has paid you $2 million since you became vice-president-elect?

• How do you explain to those Americans now serving in Iraq and their families your five deferments during the Vietnam War and your statement that "I had other priorities in the 60's than military service?"

• When then-Gov. Bush asked you to pick a running mate for him and you picked yourself, did you offer him any other names?

• Did you get Bush's permission before issuing your shoot-down order on the morning of Sept. 11? Or were you serving as de facto acting president?

• Why did you first say it had been confirmed that Mohammed Atta met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence officials, when it hadn't? And why did you then deny on "Meet the Press" that you ever said so?

How Now, Brown Cloud?

And if only it were me instead of Gwen Ifill up there tonight, I would most assuredly ask about one of the greatest unsolved White House Briefing mysteries. Back on Jan. 20, I linked to this transcript of a Cheney interview with USA Today. Here's an excerpt:

"Judy Keen: You must be well aware of the caricature of you that has evolved over the last three years, the whole undisclosed location thing, the sinister force behind the President's policies. What do you make of that? And do you feel compelled to deal with it, especially in the context of this campaign that's just beginning? . . .

"Cheney: Why do I want to deal with it? What's wrong with my image? . . . Am I brown cloud? Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole? It's a nice way to operate, actually."

We never figured out what Cheney meant by "brown cloud." Lots of readers suggested it was an allusion to the blanket of pollution hovering over South Asia. But was it? What did he mean by that?

Five-Second Delay.

I'm not sure whether it's a genuine Internet rumor or just a funny joke, but reader Joel Anderson e-mailed me yesterday: "Wondering if the rumor is true that Case Western Reserve University has installed a five-second delay for the microphones used by Edwards and Cheney fearing that Cheney in particular, may utter an expletive?"

Not as far as I know, Joel.

Cheney Background

See my Who's Who in the White House page for links to major profiles of the vice president. tracks Cheney's favorability ratings, which are in the 30s and low 40s.


Here's the text of Cheney's debate with Al Gore's running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, four years ago. An excerpt:

"MODERATOR: Your question, Mr. Secretary. You and Governor Bush charge the Clinton-Gore administration have presided over the deterioration and overextension of America's armed forces. Should U.S. military personnel be deployed as warriors or peacekeepers?

"CHENEY: My preference is to deploy them as warriors. There may be occasion when it's appropriate to use them in a peacekeeping role, but I think the role ought to be limited, a time limit on it."

And this is probably the most memorable exchange, widely perceived at the time as a huge win for Cheney:

Lieberman: "I think if you asked most people in America today that famous question that Ronald Reagan asked, 'Are you better off today than you were eight years ago?' Most people would say yes. I'm pleased to see, Dick, from the newspapers that you're better off than you were eight years ago, too.

"CHENEY: I can tell you, Joe, the government had absolutely nothing to do with it. . . .

"LIEBERMAN: I can see my wife and I think she's saying, 'I think he should go out into the private sector.'

"CHENEY: I'll help you do that, Joe."

Poll Watch

Richard Morin and Christopher Muste write in The Washington Post: "President Bush continues to lead Sen. John F. Kerry among likely voters despite surging enthusiasm for Kerry among Democrats and new doubts about whether the president has a clear plan to deal with terrorism and the situation in Iraq, according to a Washington Post tracking poll."

Among the likely voters in The Post's poll, Bush leads Kerry 51 percent to 46 percent and garners a 53 percent approval rating.

Richard W. Stevenson and Janet Elder write about the latest New York Times/CBS News poll: "Four weeks from Election Day, the presidential race is again a dead heat, with Mr. Bush having given up the gains he enjoyed for the last month after the Republican convention in New York, the poll found. . . .

"Mr. Bush's job approval rating, at 47 percent, was little changed from last month and close to what has traditionally been a danger zone for an incumbent seeking re-election. His approval ratings for his handling of foreign policy, Iraq and the economy were even lower, and a narrow majority of respondents, 51 percent, said the country was on the wrong track."

Bill Signing

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush signed into law a fourth tax cut in less than four years, extending relief for married couples, parents and businesses during a well-timed ceremony in this battleground state."

Here's the text of the bill-signing in Des Moines.

Dangerous Man

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush charged Monday that Senator John Kerry's policies were 'dangerous for world peace' as his campaign suddenly changed plans for an event on medical liability on Wednesday and scheduled a speech by Mr. Bush on terrorism and the economy instead.

"On the eve of the vice-presidential debate, with polls showing that Mr. Bush lost ground after his debate with Mr. Kerry on Thursday, the pressures on the White House to regain the upper hand appeared to be mounting."

Here's the full quote from the "Ask President Bush" event in Clive, Iowa, yesterday:

"The policies of my opponent are dangerous for world peace. If they were implemented they would make this world not more peaceful, but more dangerous."

Bush also said: "My opponent believes that the federal government ought to be making your decisions.


"THE PRESIDENT: Yes. That's what I call -- he's got a system that's creeping toward "Hillary Care." (Laughter and applause.)"

But that's a misrepresentation of Kerry's plan, which primarily relies on tax breaks to employers and tax credits to individuals, and would have the federal government underwrite the cost of catastrophic care.

Ask President Bush

It could be argued that the notoriously easy questions Bush gets in his "Ask President Bush" events didn't exactly prepare him for the tough questions he got at last week's debate.

The subject came up in yesterday's gaggle with press secretary Scott McClellan.

"Q Has there been any effort to toughen up the questions at these 'Ask President Bush' events to better prep the President for the town hall that will happen --

"MR. McCLELLAN: I saw some coverage where it said these were pre-screened questions, and that's just not the case. These are questions from people at the event. They can ask whatever they want when they come to these events. And the President enjoys participating in those question-and-answer type sessions. They're informal settings where the President can visit with the person asking the questions and listen to their views, as well as to answer their questions that they have on their mind.

"Q Usually about half of them aren't questions. They're things like, you're candle is burning brightly.

"MR. McCLELLAN: I understand there are some -- there is some of that. I understand. But these participants or these attendees to these events are able to ask whatever question they want. The President enjoys that format."

And, as it happens, here is the first "question" Bush faced yesterday in Clive:

"Q Mr. President, first, we just want to tell you that we pray for you every night as our President.

"THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, sir. (Applause.)

"Q We thank God that we live in a representative republic and we're able to home-school our children, and the fact that we're sharing with Leon Moseley (phonetic) the other night at the Christian Coalition dinner what we're teaching our children about a representative republic, and he said maybe my little seven-year-old should come down here and share it with you. Can you tell the President what Noah Webster (phonetic) said about our republic?

"SEVEN-YEAR-OLD: It would do our system well to learn at an early age that the correct principles of our republic is the holy Bible, the New Testament, and Christianity. (Applause.)"

'Hard Work' Watch

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "The Kerry campaign is trying to capitalize on Bush's obsession during the debate with saying how difficult his job is. . . .

"The insinuation by the Democratic nominee is subtle but unmistakable: George W. Bush, the president of the United States, is lazy. . . .

"Bush, evidently sensitive to the slacker accusation, has not been seen playing golf in a year, opting for the more vigorous sport of mountain biking. But he suffered a setback in the debate when he repeatedly spoke of his arduous tasks. 'In Iraq, no doubt about it, it's tough. It's hard work. It's incredibly hard,' he said at the start of the debate, before repeating a variation on that theme 21 times, even saying of his effort to comfort a soldier's widow: 'It's hard work to try to love her as best as I can.' "

Bremer Is Heard From

Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post about a not-so-private speech made yesterday by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, administrator for the U.S.-led occupation government until the handover of political power on June 28.

Bremer said "that the United States made two major mistakes: not deploying enough troops in Iraq and then not containing the violence and looting immediately after the ouster of Saddam Hussein."

Mind you: "Bremer also said he believes winning the war in Iraq is an 'integral part of fighting this war on terror.' He added that he 'strongly supports President Bush's reelection.' "

Here's the press release on the "off the record" speech.

Today's Calendar

The vice presidential debate is at 9 p.m. ET in Cleveland.

It's Cheney day, so President Bush is spending a rare full day at the White House, with no public events.

Backdrop Watch

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post: "Military and civilian employees at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque received an unusual e-mail inviting them to attend an Aug. 26 campaign rally for President Bush. . . .

"To federal employee unions, it represented the latest attempt by the Bush administration and its supporters to transform what is supposed to be a politically neutral federal bureaucracy into an arm of the president's reelection campaign."

Late Night Comedy

Via the Associated Press, from "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno": "I guess this debate will be different, the vice presidential debate. Both candidates will be seated at the table. John Edwards wanted a conference table and Dick Cheney of course wanted an operating table."

From the "Late Show with David Letterman": "Right now, Dick Cheney is practicing his 'warm sneer.' "

© 2004