While Democratic rivals battle for the presidential nomination in a succession of grueling primary elections, Vice President Dick Cheney appears to be fighting to secure his spot on the Republican ticket behind President George W. Bush.
The vice president, whose supposed moderation and 35-year Washington experience reassured Bush voters worried about the callowness and inexperience of Bush in 2000, is increasingly seen by Republican Party politicos as a drag on the president's re-election chances in what is expected to be an extremely close race.
The reasons for their worries are evident. Ongoing disclosures about Cheney's role in the drive to war in Iraq and other controversial administration plans reveal him as not the much-touted moderate but an extremist who constantly pushed for the most radical policies. But more than just an extremist, Cheney is also viewed as a kind of eminence grise who exercises undue influence over Bush to further a radical agenda, a perception confirmed by recent revelations by former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, who described Cheney as creating a "kind of praetorian guard around the president" that blocked out contrary views.
In addition, Cheney's association with Halliburton, the giant construction and oil company he headed for much of the 1990s and that gobbled up billions of dollars in contracts for Iraq's postwar reconstruction, is also becoming a major political liability. Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail are already using Halliburton's rhythmic, four-syllable name as a mantra that neatly taps into the public's growing concerns over Iraq and disgust with crony capitalism and corporate greed, all at the same time.
Reports of a discreet "dump Cheney" movement, launched by intimate associates of Bush's father (former president George H. W. Bush), were already surfacing two months ago. Cheney's detractors include national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former secretary of state James Baker, who now has a White House appointment as Bush Jr's personal envoy to persuade official creditors to reduce substantially Iraq's $110 billion foreign debt. Both men battled frequently with the vice president when he was defense secretary in the first Bush administration.
In addition to fears about possible impact on Bush's re-election chances, Scowcroft and Baker have privately expressed great concern over Cheney's unparalleled influence over the younger Bush's foreign policy, and the damage that it has wreaked on U.S. relations with longtime allies, particularly in Europe and the Arab world.
The underground campaign explains many of Cheney's recent actions, including holding unprecedented rounds of press interviews in January, as well as his trip this week to Switzerland and Italy (marking only the second time the vice president has traveled abroad in three years). "I think he knows that he's in trouble," said a prominent anti-Cheney Republican activist this week. "I don't think there's any other way to explain why he would sit for a puerile interview for the [Washington Post's] Style section. You know he despises that sort of thing."
Cheney's travel and sudden and abundant press availability was noted in The New York Times, which described his behavior as "a calculated election-year makeover to temper his hardline image at home and abroad."
But Cheney's appearances may, in fact, have merely confirmed his image as a zealot. In an interview he gave National Public Radio (NPR) recently, Cheney not only insisted that major stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) may still be found in Iraq, he also claimed that two semi-trailer trucks found in that country during last year's U.S.-led war constituted "conclusive evidence" of WMD programs. Both assertions were almost instantly refuted by none other than the administration's outgoing chief weapons inspector, David Kay. In a series of statements published after Cheney's NPR broadcast, Kay said he had concluded that the WMD stockpiles were destroyed in the early 1990s, and that the two trailers in question were intended to produce hydrogen for weather balloons or possibly rocket fuel.
In the same NPR interview, Cheney also insisted there was "overwhelming evidence" of an "established relationship" between former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and the al Qaeda terrorist group, citing Saddam's alleged harboring of a suspect in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. But the notion of such an "established relationship" in any operational sense has now been almost uniformly dismissed by the intelligence community, and even Bush and other senior White House officials have dropped the issue.
In another interview, Cheney told USA Today he was not worried about his image as the administration's Machiavelli, skilled in the quiet arts of persuading his "Prince" to pursue questionable policies, adding, remarkably, "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."
But whether Cheney likes it or not, he is increasingly seen as a master manipulator -- by Democrats, by Republican internationalists such as Baker and Scowcroft, and, perhaps most significantly for purposes of Bush's re-election prospects, by a growing number of traditionally Republican right-wingers and libertarians worried about the impact of the exploding costs of the "war on terror" on the country's fiscal health, individual liberties and armed forces. These Republicans also blame Cheney for being the administration's key supporter of the neo-conservative agenda, which promotes a never-ending war against radical Islam.
"So Dick Cheney turns out to be a true radical -- not a moderate Republican," notes Georgie Anne Geyer, a nationally syndicated columnist, who compares the vice president to Cardinal Richelieu of 17th-century France in a cover article for a recent edition of American Conservative magazine. "While there is little mystery about what he has actually done, there remains the mystery of how a man from Wyoming should be the epicenter of a scheme so strange, so Machiavellian, so profoundly disaggregated from the American context," she writes. "But no one should expect Dick Cheney and his group [of neo-conservatives] to change. They will not."
In a case of particularly bad timing, Cheney's image as a manipulative schemer was furthered in a new book on Tony Blair authored by Financial Times correspondent Philip Stephens. It depicts Cheney as the surprise guest at key meetings between Bush and Blair. He quotes one Blair aide complaining that Cheney "waged a guerrilla war" against London's efforts to seek United Nations approval before the war. The book concludes that Cheney constantly "sought to undermine the prime minister privately" and quotes him telling another senior official more than six months before the war, "Once we have victory in Baghdad, all the critics will look like fools."
With the presidential elections looming in November, a "victory" in Iraq still looks rather tenuous, and with recent polls showing Cheney's favorability rating at less than one-half of that of Bush -- 20 percent and falling -- so might the vice president's claim to the No. 2 spot on the ticket. n
Jim Lobe writes on foreign policy for AlterNet, Foreign Policy in Focus and TomPaine.com.