Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Prime Minister

The Washington Post yesterday began a long series on the unprecedented influence of Vice President Cheney. Today's story deals with the development (in Cheney's office) of the detention policies for suspected terrorists, but future articles in the series will also discuss his role in economic policy and many other matters. They make it clear that the Bush Administration has led us to disaster essentially by gutting, and ignoring, the whole federal structure as it has evolved, literally, since the beginning of the Republic. Not only the bureaucracy--that Republican bogeyman for 65 years--but also the Cabinet, including loyalists like John Ashcroft as well as moderates like Colin Powell--have been completely bypassed by Cheney's office. National Security Advisor Rice, as has been known for some time, lost her autonomy to Cheney during Bush's first term (and is now in renewed battles with him as Secretary of State over Guantanamo and, very likely, Iran.)

The second piece in the series goes into more detail on Cheney's role in the development and implementation of torture policies, in which he managed to overrule not only Justice Department lawyers (including Theodore Olsen, the Solicitor General whose wife died on 9/11 in a hijacked airplane), and the White House counsel's staff. He has managed to block appointments at Justice when the appointee did not share his views. Essentially, he has not only decided what policy should be, but used his staff to make sure it was implemented.

It is not clear whether the series will take this up, but it seems clear to me that the same process brought about the Iraq war. Cheney took the lead publicly in defining the threat, arguing that Saddam was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. By that time (in the late summer of 2002) Condi Rice had already told Colin Powell that the President had already made the decision to invade Iraq. It may turn out that Scooter Libby, not Rumsfeld, was the real patron of the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon, which cooked the intelligence to support the war. And he was pretty clearly behind the attempt to discredit Joseph Wilson--which, a former high Administration official has confirmed to me personally, wasn't really an attempt to discredit Wilson at all, but an attempt to intimidate the CIA from leaking any embarrassing information again.

President Bush for the last six years has focused on "staying on message." It is beginning to look, really and truly, as though that is all he does. Like a British monarch giving a series of King's speeches, he is the public face of the Administration's policy but he is neither designing it or directing it except in the most general (and never-varying) terms. And indeed, some of his own most deeply held beliefs--such as the need to promote democracy--have not really been reflected in policy because the Vice President does not share them.

At least two broader historical currents have contributed to this disaster. One is the traditional American distrust of big government, which began with the Founders and survived the civil war. The New Deal changed the minds of a majority of Americans, but conservative Republicans never accepted the changes it wrought, and they forged an alliance with southern whites and religious conservatives in the 1980s that got Bush close enough to victory in 2000 to get him into the White House with the help of the Supreme Court. The second strain, of course, is generational. Boomers--and although Cheney is technically two years older than the oldest Boomer, his coming of age was slowed by his decision to drop out of Yale, he did not graduate from college until 1965, just as Vietnam was getting underway, and he went straight to Washington. Already a conservative Republican, LBJ's travails inevitably fired him with the boom generation's customary contempt for higher authority and everything their parents had wrought. (Cheney's parents, actually, were Democrats.) His unhappy experiences at Yale, from which he dropped out (or flunked out), undoubtedly contributed to his hatred of the eastern establishment, something he seems to share with his boss. More importantly, however, virtually the whole Administration is staffed with Boomers--conservative boomers with as little respect for the work of the New Deal and of the 1950s and 1960s as the SDS had forty years ago.

It makes sense that such profound policy changes had to be accompanied by profound institutional changes, too. That is the only way they could happen. And it may be, as Bush and Cheney obviously hoped, that too much damage has been done to reverse the process.

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