Cheney: So 20 Minutes Ago

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, June 26, 2007; 1:52 PM

Is Vice President Cheney old news? Even as a major Post series continues to authoritatively document Cheney's staggering clout within the Bush White House, there are signs that he and his supposed boss have lost control of the Washington agenda when it comes to their principal legacy: the war in Iraq.

As much as Cheney and President Bush would like to keep talking about how to win, that's not a scenario serious policymakers are contemplating.

E. J. Dionne Jr. explains in his Washington Post opinion column this morning: "Quietly, the real debate over Iraq is beginning.

"It's not about whether the United States should pull out troops. That is now inevitable. The real challenge is to figure out the right timetable for withdrawal, whether a residual force should be left there and which American objectives can still be salvaged."

Dionne cites two new reports on Iraq. One, from the Center for a New American Security,"suggests reducing the American presence in Iraq by 100,000 troops between now and the beginning of 2009. But it would keep 60,000 troops in Iraq for four years beyond that."

The other, from the Center for American Progress"would have all American troops out of Iraq before the end of 2008, except for a force of 8,000 to 10,000 in the Kurdish area for an additional year. . . .

"Up to now, the administration has insisted that the only question in the Iraq debate is whether to withdraw. These two reports lay out the parameters for the argument we need now: how to end a disastrous war in a way that best serves America's long-term interests. The president would be better served if he entered the new debate. If he ignores it, it will pass him by."

Dionne's column comes as the White House is reeling from a major defection from its position on Iraq.

Anne Flaherty reports for the Associated Press: "Sen. Richard Lugar, a senior Republican and a reliable vote for President Bush on the war, said that Bush's Iraq strategy was not working and that the U.S. should downsize the military's role.

"The unusually blunt assessment Monday deals a political blow to Bush, who has relied heavily on GOP support to stave off anti-war legislation."

From Lugar's floor speech: "Those who offer constructive criticism of the surge strategy are not defeatists, any more than those who warn against a precipitous withdrawal are militarists. We need to move Iraq policy beyond the politics of the moment and re-establish a broad consensus on the role of the United States in the Middle East. If we do that, the United States has the diplomatic influence and economic and military power to strengthen mutually beneficial policies that could enhance security and prosperity throughout the region. I pray that the President and the Congress will move swiftly and surely to achieve that goal."

And here are some more data points: Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies is warning of the "obvious risk that the US will simply end up playing 'Whack a mole' on a steadily rising scale."

James W. Riley writes in the National Interest about a recent high-powered gathering on the Hill to discuss Iraq's possible future as a "High Devolution State (HDS), which grants 'a high level of autonomy to the 18 provinces that make up Iraq.' The idea is straight forward enough; Iraqis should police their own communities: Shi'a, Sunnis, Kurd." One participant, Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, spoke of "U.S.-sponsored ethnic segregation via relocation within a period of 12--18 months," Riley writes.

Kick the Can

The official White House strategy, in the meantime, is basically still kicking the can down the road. And that means diminishing expectations regarding that supposed September deadline.

Frank Rich wrote Sunday in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required) that the White House is sending out clear signals "that the long-promised September pivot point for judging the success of the 'surge' was inoperative. That deadline had been asserted as recently as April 24 by President Bush, who told Charlie Rose that September was when we'd have 'a pretty good feel' whether his policy 'made sense.' On [ June 17] General [David] Petraeus and [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan] Crocker each downgraded September to merely a 'snapshot' of progress in Iraq. 'Snapshot,' of course, means 'Never mind!' . . .

"For the Bush White House, the real definition of victory has become 'anything they can get away with without taking blame for defeat,' said the retired Army Gen. William Odom, a national security official in the Reagan and Carter administrations, when I spoke with him recently. The plan is to run out the Washington clock between now and Jan. 20, 2009, no matter the cost."

Evolving Views?

And yet, there are scattered reports -- trial balloons? -- suggesting that someone in the White House is recognizing that a change in policy is required.

David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker wrote in the New York Times on Sunday that "the administration is commissioning other assessments" that "are likely to conclude that the Iraqi government has failed to use the troop increase for the purpose the president intended, to strike the political accommodations that he said would stabilize the country. That and other views expected in the various reports could also provide some rationale for beginning a reduction of troops in Iraq under conditions far short of the 'victory' Mr. Bush, for the past four years, has said was his ultimate goal. He has used that word with far less frequency recently. . . .

"'The issue now is when do we start withdrawing troops and at what pace,' one senior administration official said. . . .

"Advisers to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and senior members of Congress who have discussed the issue with Mr. Gates have described one of his central goals as trying to turn down the heat in Iraq, transforming the war from the central national security crisis confronting the nation to an important but manageable long-term foreign policy and military issue. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has expressed similar views, but it is unclear whether Vice President Dick Cheney or President Bush will try to squeeze every possible month out of the troop increase."

Paul Richter and Noam N. Levey write in the Los Angeles Times: "The Bush administration has begun exploring ways of offering Congress a compromise deal on Iraq policy to avert bruising battles in coming months, U.S. officials said.

"With public support of the war dropping, President Bush has authorized an internal policy review to find a plan that could satisfy opponents without sacrificing his top goals, the officials said.

"The president and senior officials 'realize they can't keep fighting this over and over,' said one administration official, who along with others declined to be identified because they weren't authorized to speak publicly or because decisions were pending.

"The Republican White House has not opened formal negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Congress. But some senior administration officials -- including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and U.N. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad -- have been quietly talking with lawmakers about how to adjust policy in the months ahead. Among other ideas, they have discussed whether the United States should advocate a sharply decentralized Iraq, a notion that has seen a resurgence on Capitol Hill."

Petraeus's History

Dick Polman, blogging for the Philadelphia Inquirer, recently pointed out something interesting about General Petraeus, the man who has been entrusted with giving Americans a straight-talk assessment this September: On Iraq, he's rescued Bush from a political pinch before.

In late September 2004, Polman writes, "President Bush was trying to convince voters to give him a second term. The election was just six weeks away. His number-one priority was to persuade people that he was making measurable progress in Iraq. Accordingly, a guest column appeared that day in The Washington Post, with the upbeat author playing the role of Bush's Pollyana."

From Petraeus's op-ed back then: "I see tangible progress. Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up. The institutions that oversee them are being reestablished from the top down. And Iraqi leaders are stepping forward, leading their country and their security forces courageously. . . . There are reasons for optimism."

Cheney, Part III

Jo Becker and Barton Gellman write in the third installment of a massive Washington Post series on Cheney: "The president is 'the decider,' as Bush puts it, but the vice president often serves up his menu of choices. . . .

"In Bush, Cheney found the perfect partner. The president's willingness to delegate left plenty of room for his more detail-oriented vice president."

Today's installment focuses on Cheney's firm grip on economic policy and other domestic issues: "Cheney has changed history more than once, earning his reputation as the nation's most powerful vice president. His impact has been on public display in the arenas of foreign policy and homeland security, and in a long-running battle to broaden presidential authority. But he has also been the unseen hand behind some of the president's major domestic initiatives."

There are more descriptions of how Cheney exercises his power both by being the last to speak to the president before he makes a decision and, "to a degree unmatched by his predecessors, in steering debate by weighing in at the lower-level meetings where proposals are born and die."

Becker and Gellman even describe one instance where Cheney lost an argument with Bush -- but eventually prevailed anyway. This was in 2003: "The president had accepted Cheney's diagnosis that the sluggish economy needed a jolt, overruling senior economic advisers who forecast dangerous budget deficits. But Bush rejected one of Cheney's remedies: deep reductions in the capital gains tax on investments."

At a Republican retreat, however, "the vice president revived the argument, touting his idea as a way to energize a stock market battered by scandals such as Enron. House allies inserted Cheney's cut into their package. But that came at the expense of one of Bush's priorities: abolishing the tax on stock dividends."

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill warned that deep tax cuts would lead to enormous deficits. Cheney's solution: He never let Bush meet with Greenspan one on one, and he fired O'Neill.

Cheney and the Supremes

In a sidebar, Becker and Gellman describe how Cheney led the group that vetted Supreme Court nominees.

"The handful of candidates who survived a grilling of more than two hours by the Cheney-led selection committee would go on to what one participant described as a much shorter and 'far more relaxed' interview with the president. President Bush seemed more interested in personal matters than in case law. By contrast, Cheney pressed for information that would shed light on the candidates' legal philosophies, demonstrating a sophisticated knowledge of doctrine and, without crossing the line by asking about specific cases, leaving a clear impression of the constitutional issue he considered paramount."

Bush wanted diversity in his court selections. Cheney wanted reliability. Cheney won. For the first vacancy, all the finalists were white and all but one were men. "What they shared were clear records of support for the positions most important to Cheney.

"Collectively, the group had expansive views on executive power and limited views of congressional authority. One judge had already given the administration a victory in its quest, championed by Cheney, to detain terrorism suspects indefinitely. Two other candidates would soon bless other aspects of the administration's terrorism policies. The majority also had records indicating that they shared Cheney's view that affirmative action was unconstitutional, and one had sided with power companies in a case involving a pollution rule Cheney considered overly burdensome."

When a second vacancy arose, Bush thought he'd made a decision himself. "On Oct. 2, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. was dispatched to tell Cheney that Bush had nominated White House counsel Harriet E. Miers, another longtime Texas associate, to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. 'Didn't have the nerve to tell me himself,' Cheney muttered to an associate in a rare display of pique with the president.

"Cheney's office disputed that account. 'The vice president did not say that,' said his spokeswoman, Lea Anne McBride."

Of course, Cheney won in the end. "Miers was forced to withdraw amid a firestorm of criticism from the right," the story notes. "Bush then nominated Alito, a white male federal appellate judge. This time, he stuck to the Cheney committee's list."


Ken Herman blogs for Cox News: "'I just hope (Post reporters Barton) Gellman and (Jo) Becker are getting paid by the word,' said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.

"Asked if the series, in the works for more than a year, paints an accurate portrait of Cheney, Frato said, 'I'm not going to answer an overall question.' . . .

"Anything in the series, which has two parts to come, provide a source of heartburn for the administration?

"'I haven't seen anything that's given me heartburn,' said Fratto."

Andrea Mitchell reports on NBC's Today Show: "Current and former officials say that the vice president may be choosing to fight on a smaller number of issues. But when he goes into battle, he generally wins."

Opinion Watch

Time for another round of Dump-Cheney rumors?

Sally Quinn writes for "The big question right now among Republicans is how to remove Vice President Cheney from office. Even before this week's blockbuster series in The Post, discontent in Republican ranks was rising.

"As the reputed architect of the war in Iraq, Cheney is viewed as toxic, and as the administration's leading proponent of an attack on Iran, he is seen as dangerous. As long as he remains vice president, according to this thinking, he has the potential to drag down every member of the party -- including the presidential nominee -- in next year's elections."

Quinn envisions group of party elders, led by Sen. John Warner of Virginia telling Bush that Cheney has to go. "For such a plan to work, however, they would need a ready replacement. Until recently, there hasn't been an acceptable alternative to Cheney -- nor has there been a persuasive argument to convince President Bush to make a change. Now there is."

And the likely candidate? "Fred Thompson. Everybody loves Fred. . . .

"Cheney is scheduled this summer for surgery to replace his pacemaker, which needs new batteries. So if the president is willing, and Republicans are able, they have a convenient reason to replace him: doctor's orders. And I'm sure the vice president would also like to spend more time with his ever-expanding family."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Students of public administration should have to take a course called 'Cheney.' How he has amassed and employed his power offers a case study in how government really works -- and how a skillful operator can make a bureaucracy dance. Take Cheney's penchant for secrecy, which seems to border on the maniacal. His office stamps 'SECRET' on routine documents, including talking points for officials to use with reporters. He keeps papers pertaining to everyday business in huge Mosler safes. Is this loopy? No, he's just putting into practice the dictum that information is power. Sunshine is for losers.

"The vice president, whose Secret Service code name is 'Angler,' really does know all the angles. And above all, he knows how to survive. His onetime mentor Donald Rumsfeld is gone, his onetime top aide Scooter Libby is on his way to jail, yet Cheney -- defiantly, disastrously, unbelievably -- remains. It will take years to uncover and undo all the damage he has wrought."

And is this the best Cheney's fans can do? Jonah Goldberg writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column: "I'm a longtime member of a pretty select group: the Dick Cheney Fan Club. . . .

"But although I like Cheney's style -- particularly in contrast to his boss' -- it's become pretty clear that the Cheney method leaves a lot to be desired. . . .

"Cheney's approach to government is ultimately counterproductive. That's certainly the upshot of an epic exegesis on Cheney's tenure that is unfolding like daily Pulitzer bait in the Washington Post this week. . . .

"Sure, the act of building consensus often requires sacrificing on your most preferred policies. But such consensus-building actually persuades the public, the bureaucracy and legislators of the necessity to act and reduces the chances they'll turn their back on the whole effort. Meanwhile, the Cheney method instead creates a blowback that hobbles your efforts in the long run far more than compromise does."

The Fourth Branch

Cheney's office has not backed off its insistence that he is entitled to ignore requirements regarding the safekeeping of government secrets that apply to everyone else in the executive branch. And his argument -- that because he is also president of the Senate, his office is not really within the executive branch -- continues to subject him to widespread derision.

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post that "nobody in the White House has a good answer for why Cheney -- who hovered near Bush's desk while the president spoke -- had turned himself into a fourth branch of government.

"The explanatory task fell to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, whose skin reddened around her neck and collar as she pleaded ignorance during the daily briefing: 'I'm not a legal scholar. . . . I'm not opining on his argument that his office is making. . . . I don't know why he made the arguments that he did.'

"'It's a little surreal,' remarked Keith Koffler of Congress Daily.

"'You're telling me,' Perino agreed.

"'You can't give an opinion about whether the vice president is part of the executive branch or not?' Koffler pressed. 'It's a little bit like somebody saying, "I don't know if this is my wife or not." ' . . .

"Cheney has, in effect, declared himself to be neither fish nor fowl but an exotic, extraconstitutional beast who answers to no one."

Defunding the Veep?

Elana Schor and Mike Soraghan write in The Hill: "Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) yesterday warned Dick Cheney that his office would risk losing its budget unless the vice president agrees to follow a presidential directive ordering the protection of classified information. . . .

"'The decision to exempt your office from this system for protecting classified information is deeply troubling because it could place national security secrets at risk,' Durbin wrote to Cheney yesterday. Durbin did not specify how appropriators would hit Cheney's funding. . . .

"The House will take up its version of the bill this week, and Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) is vowing a floor push to strike all $4.4 million of the vice president's budget. . . .

"Emanuel's amendment, to be debated Wednesday, would put Cheney's executive-branch funding on hold until a determination is made by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, on whether Cheney is a member of the executive or legislative branch."

Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers that Emanuel is a formidable foe: "For six years, Vice President Dick Cheney had his way with a compliant Republican-led Congress while dismissing Democrats as nuisances.

"Perhaps the most famous example of the Cheney approach came when a Democratic senator tried to make small talk after earlier criticizing the veep. Replied Cheney on the Senate floor: 'Go f--- yourself.'

"That was then. Now the Democrats run Congress, and Cheney faces a confrontation this week with a man who's his match in profanity and perhaps his superior at using the machinery of government to back it up."

Another Shoe Drops?

Josh Meyer writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A federal watchdog agency planned to inspect the president's executive offices in the White House in 2005 for evidence of suspected leaks of classified information, but it was rebuffed by Bush administration officials, congressional investigators have been told. . . .

"The blocked inspection was described in an April 23 letter to former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card from Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who provided a copy of the letter to the Los Angeles Times on Monday. . . .

"Waxman, the chairman of the powerful House oversight committee, told Card that his staff investigators also found numerous problems with the way the White House handled classified information. That investigation was prompted by a March hearing in which the committee examined the leak by White House officials of the identity of now-retired CIA officer Valerie Plame."

Waxman this morning outlined several charges in a letter he sent to White House Counsel Fred Fielding. Among other things, he noted the renewal of political adviser Karl Rove's security clearance in late 2006. "This renewal of Mr. Rove's security clearance would appear to be another example of a questionable White House security practice. Under guidelines approved by President Bush in 2005, the 'deliberate or negligent disclosure' of classified information can be a 'disqualifying' condition. Moreover, these guidelines provide that an individual's response to a potential security breach may be just as important as the breach itself. Under the guidelines, a lack of candor, even about unintentional breaches, can be grounds for terminating access to classified information.

"Under these standards, it is hard to see how Mr. Rove would qualify for a renewal of his security clearance. At a minimum, his disclosure of Ms. Wilson's status as a CIA officer would appear to be a disqualifying 'negligent' disclosure under the executive order. In addition, he told White House spokesman Scott McClellan in September 2003 that there was 'no truth' to the allegations that he was involved in the disclosure of Ms. Plame's identity. This misrepresentation would appear to be an independent ground under the President's guidelines for denying his clearance renewal."

Immigration Watch

The Senate takes up the immigration bill again today.

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Administration officials summoned business leaders to the White House yesterday to demand that they put aside efforts to fine-tune the bill and begin lobbying hard for its passage. President Bush will hold this morning a hastily scheduled event with supporters of the bill."

Bush did meet with supporters of the bill this morning. Here's the transcript.

A few hours later, the White House press office sent out this urgent missive: "Earlier today, in speaking about comprehensive immigration reform, President Bush misspoke. He told a group, 'You know, I've heard all the rhetoric -- you've heard it, too -- about how this is amnesty. Amnesty means that you've got to pay a price for having been here illegally, and this bill does that.' This has been construed as an assertion that comprehensive immigration reform legislation before the Senate offers amnesty to immigrants who came here illegally. That is the exact opposite of the president's long-held and often-stated position."

Students Against Torture

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush was presented with a letter Monday signed by 50 high school seniors in the Presidential Scholars program urging a halt to 'violations of the human rights' of terror suspects held by the United States.

"The White House said Bush had not expected the letter but took a moment to read it and talk with a young woman who handed it to him. . . .

"The students had been invited to the East Room to hear the president speak about his effort to win congressional reauthorization of his education law known as No Child Left Behind.

"The handwritten letter said the students 'believe we have a responsibility to voice our convictions.'

"'We do not want America to represent torture. We urge you to do all in your power to stop violations of the human rights of detainees, to cease illegal renditions, and to apply the Geneva Convention to all detainees, including those designated enemy combatants,' the letter said."

Handy Backdrop

Despite their views on torture, the scholars made nice backdrops for Bush's speech.

Amit R. Paley writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush urged lawmakers yesterday to renew No Child Left Behind, his landmark education initiative, but one of his biggest political liabilities in achieving that goal comes from an unlikely source: his former aides.

"Five years after they helped craft and implement the initiative, senior administration officials from Bush's first term are speaking out against the law with increasing boldness."

Among those trashing the bill: Eugene W. Hickok, the No. 2 Education Department official in Bush's first term, who "wrangled states and schools into compliance with the law so forcefully that foes called him 'Wild Gene.'"

Faith-Based Victory

William Branigin writes in The Washington Post: "The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that federal taxpayers cannot challenge the constitutionality of White House efforts to help religious groups obtain government funding for their social programs, handing a victory to President Bush's faith-based initiatives program.

"In a 5 to 4 decision, the court blocked a lawsuit by a Wisconsin-based group of atheists and agnostics against the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The court ruled that the suit, by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and three of its taxpaying members, could not go forward because ordinary taxpayers lack legal standing to challenge executive branch expenditures. The ruling reversed a January 2006 decision in favor of the foundation by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.

"Liberal groups blasted the court's decision in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation as a setback for the First Amendment and a sop to the religious right, while the White House and religious conservatives hailed it as a major triumph for Bush's program."

Desperately Seeking Bush Fans

Armando Acuna, the Sacramento Bee's public editor, writes that letters to the editor supporting Bush have become a rare commodity. "Last August and September, [Bill Moore, the paper's letters editor] noticed what he calls a 'sea change,' a significant drop in letters supporting the president.

"And it has remained that way ever since."

Election Watch

Patrick Gavin blogs for FishbowlDC on the 2007 elections for leadership positions at the White House Correspondents Association.

Bloomberg's Ed Chen writes: "[I]f elected, I intend to engage the entire membership in an open conversation about our signature event. Surely there are ways to make the annual dinner (no, the entire evening) even more enjoyable . . . and less polarizing?"

Newsweek's Richard Wolffe writes: "Let's face it: we're under attack. . . . [W]e, as the White House press corps, are on the receiving end of a concerted campaign by political partisans on both sides. We could just pretend like this storm is going to pass; but it's not. . . . Now is the time to stand up for who we are and what we do." On his agenda: "Well how about defending the annual dinner for a start."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. Come join the conversation.

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles, Mike Luckovich, Pat Oliphant, David Horsey, John Deering, Jack Ohman, Rex Babin and Dwane Powell on -- who else? -- Cheney.

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