THE WASHINGTON MONTHLY :: FEB/MARCH 2003
JOSHUA MICAH MARSHALL
Early last December, Vice President Dick Cheney was dispatched to inform his old friend, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, that he was being let go. O’Neill, the president’s advisers felt, had made too many missteps, given too much bad advice, uttered too many gaffes. He had become a liability to the administration. As Cheney himself once said in a different context, it was time for him to go. It couldn’t have been a fun conversation–especially since it was Cheney who had picked O’Neill two years earlier.
O’Neill stormed off to Pittsburgh and within days the White House had announced his replacement. Yet the new treasury secretary nominee turned out not to be much of an improvement. Like O’Neill, John Snow was a veteran of the Ford administration who ran an old-economy titan (the railroad firm CSX) and seemed to lack the global market financial experience demanded of modern day treasury secretaries. Like other Bush appointees, Snow came from a business that traded heavily on the Washington influence game. And–again typical of the president and his men–the size of Snow’s compensation package seemed inversely proportional to the returns he made for his shareholders. Of the three new members of the president’s economic team nominated in early December, Snow was the only one to get almost universally poor reviews. He was also Dick Cheney’s pick.
Week after week, one need only read the front page of The Washington Post to find similar Cheney lapses. Indeed, just a few days after Cheney hand-picked Snow, Newsweek magazine featured a glowing profile of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that began with an anecdote detailing her deft efforts to clean up another Cheney mess. In a July speech, the vice president had argued that weapons inspections in Iraq were useless and shouldn’t even be tried. That speech nearly upended the administration’s careful late-summer repositioning in favor of a new United Nations-backed inspections program. As the article explained, Rice–the relatively junior member of the president’s inner circle of foreign policy advisers–had to take the vice president aside and walk him through how to repair the damage he’d done, with a new statement implicitly retracting his earlier gaffe. Such mistakes–on energy policy, homeland security, corporate reform–abound. Indeed, on almost any issue, it’s usually a sure bet that if Cheney has lined up on one side, the opposite course will turn out to be the wiser.
Yet somehow, in Washington’s collective mind, Cheney’s numerous stumbles and missteps have not displaced the reputation he enjoys as a sober, reliable, skilled inside player. Even the Newsweek article, so eager to convey Rice’s competence, seemed never to explicitly note the obvious subtext: Cheney’s evident incompetence. If there were any justice or logic in this administration as to who should or shouldn’t keep their job, there’d be another high-ranking official in line for one of those awkward conversations: Dick Cheney.
Consider the evidence. Last year, Cheney’s White House energy task force produced an all-drilling-and-no-conservation plan that failed not just on policy grounds but as a political matter as well, saddling the administration with a year-long public relations headache after Cheney insisted on running his outfit with a near-Nixonian level of secrecy. (To this day, Cheney and his aides have refused to provide the names of most of those industry executives who “advised” him on the task force’s recommendations, though a federal judge has now rejected the Government Accounting Office’s effort to make them do so.) During the spring of 2001, rather than back congressional efforts to implement the findings of the Hart-Rudman commission that called for forceful action to combat terrorism (including the creation of a department of homeland security), Cheney opted to spearhead his own group–not because he disagreed with the commission’s proposals, but to put the administration’s stamp on whatever anti-terrorism reforms did get adopted. Cheney’s security task force did nothing for four months, lurching into action only after terrorists actually attacked America on September 11. In the months that followed, Cheney was one of several key advisers arguing that the White House should keep Tom Ridge’s Office of Homeland Security within the White House rather than upgrade it to a cabinet department and thus open it to congressional scrutiny. Cheney’s obstinacy ensured that the administration’s efforts were stuck in neutral for nearly eight months.
Cheney has not fared much better in the diplomatic arena. Last March, he went on a tour of Middle Eastern capitals to line up America’s allies for our war against Saddam. He returned a week later with the Arabs lining up behind Saddam and against us–a major embarrassment for the White House. Much of the success of the administration’s Iraq policy came only after it abandoned the strategy of unilateral action against Saddam, the strategy Cheney championed, to one of supporting a U.N. inspections regime–a necessary and successful course correction that Cheney resisted and almost halted. Indeed, broadly speaking, the evolution of White House Iraq policy might be described fairly as a slow process of overruling Dick Cheney.
And there’s more. Remember those corporate scandals that came close to crippling Bush? Last summer, White House advisers were pondering whether to back the sort of tough corporate accountability measures that Democrats and the press were demanding. The president was scheduled to deliver a big speech on Wall Street in early July. His advisers were divided. Some argued that strong reforms were at the least a political necessity. But Cheney, along with National Economic Council chair Larry Lindsey, opposed the idea, arguing that new restrictions on corporations would further weaken the economy. The president took Cheney’s advice, and gave a speech on Wall Street that recommended only mild and unspecific reforms. “He mentioned a lot of things in the speech that the Securities and Exchange Commission already does,” one non-plussed Wall Streeter told The Washington Post with a yawn. The day after the president’s speech, the Dow shed 282 points, the biggest single-day drop since the post-terrorist tailspin of Sept. 20. Within days the president was backpedaling and supporting what Cheney had said he shouldn’t. Lindsey got the boot later in the year. Cheney is still in the West Wing shaping economic policy.
Much of the reason Cheney so often calls things wrong–even on those business issues that would seem his area of expertise–can be traced to the culture in which he’s spent most of his professional life. Despite his CEO credentials and government experience, Dick Cheney has been surprisingly insulated from the political and financial marketplace. He began his career as a Nixon-administration functionary under Donald Rumsfeld. Later, he joined the Ford administration as a deputy assistant to the president before becoming White House chief of staff. From there he moved into elective office, but to the ultra-safe House seat from Wyoming, a post only slightly less shielded from the tides of American politics than were his posts in the Ford administration.
Cheney resigned his House seat in 1989 and moved back to the executive branch where he belonged, serving–with distinction–as defense secretary under the first President Bush. From there he moved to the corporate suite at Halliburton, where he eventually earned tens of millions of dollars. But Halliburton is a peculiar kind of enterprise. It doesn’t market shoes or design software. Rather, its business–providing various products and services to the oil industry and the military–is based on securing lucrative contracts and concessions from a handful of big customers, primarily energy companies and the U.S. and foreign governments. Success in that business comes not by understanding and meeting the demands of millions of finicky customers, but by cementing relationships with and winning the support of a handful of powerful decision-makers.
Indeed, that’s why Halliburton came to Cheney in the first place. His ties with the Bush family, his post-Gulf War friendships with Arab emirs, and the Rolodex he’d compiled from a quarter century in Washington made him a perfect rainmaker. And though he did rather poorly on the management side–he shepherded Halliburton’s disastrous merger with Dresser Industries, which saddled the new company with massive asbestos liabilities–he handled the schmoozing part of the enterprise well.
Cheney is conservative, of course, but beneath his conservatism is something more important: a mindset rooted in his peculiar corporate-Washington-insider class. It is a world of men–very few women–who have been at the apex of both business and government, and who feel that they are unique in their mastery of both. Consequently, they have an extreme assurance in their own judgment about what is best for the country and how to achieve it. They see themselves as men of action. But their style of action is shaped by the government bureaucracies and cartel-like industries in which they have operated. In these institutions, a handful of top officials make the plans, and then the plans are carried out. Ba-da-bing. Ba-da-boom.
In such a framework all information is controlled tightly by the principals, who have “maximum flexibility” to carry out the plan. Because success is measured by securing the deal rather than by, say, pleasing millions of customers, there’s no need to open up the decision-making process. To do so, in fact, is seen as governing by committee. If there are other groups (shareholders, voters, congressional committees) who agree with you, fine, you use them. But anyone who doesn’t agree gets ignored or, if need be, crushed. Muscle it through and when the results are in, people will realize we were right is the underlying attitude.
The danger of this mindset is obvious. No single group of people has a monopoly on the truth. Whether it be plumbers, homemakers, or lobbyist bureaucrats, any group will inevitably see the world through its own narrow, mostly self-interested, prism. But few groups are so accustomed to self-dealing and self-aggrandizement as the cartel-capitalist class. And few are more used to equating their own self-interest with the interests of the country as a whole.
Not since the Whiz Kids of the Kennedy-Johnson years has Washington been led by men of such insular self-assurance. Their hierarchical, old economy style of management couldn’t be more different from the loose, non-hierarchical style of, say, high-tech corpor-ations or the Clinton White House, with all their open debate, concern with the interests of “stake-holders,” manic focus on pleasing customers (or voters), and constant reassessment of plans and principles. The latter style, while often sloppy and seemingly juvenile, tends to produce pretty smart policy. The former style, while appearing so adult and competent, often produces stupid policy.
Over time, people in the White House have certainly had to deal with enough examples of Cheney’s poor judgment. It’s fallen to the White House’s political arm, led by the poll-conscious Karl Rove, to rein in or overrule him. Yet the vice president has apparently lost little stature within the White House. That may be because his get-it-done-and-ignore-the-nay-sayers attitude is one that others in the administration share. Cheney stands up for the cartel-capitalist principles they admire. He is right, in a sense, even when he’s wrong.
Why, though, has the press failed to grasp Cheney’s ineptitude? The answer seems to lie in the power of political assumptions. The historian of science Thomas Kuhn famously observed that scientific theories or “paradigms”–Newtonian physics, for instance–could accommodate vast amounts of contradictory evidence while still maintaining a grip on intelligent people’s minds. Such theories tend to give way not incrementally, as new and conflicting data slowly accumulates, but in sudden crashes, when a better theory comes along that explains the anomalous facts. Washington conventional wisdom works in a similar way. It doesn’t take long for a given politician to get pegged with his or her own brief story line. And those facts and stories that get attention tend to be those that conform to the established narrative. In much the same way, Cheney’s reputation as the steady hand at the helm of the Bush administration–the CEO to Bush’s chairman–is so potent as to blind Beltway commentators to the examples of vice presidential incompetence accumulating, literally, under their noses. Though far less egregious, Cheney’s bad judgment is akin to Trent Lott’s ugly history on race: Everyone sort of knew it was there, only no one ever really took notice until it was pointed out in a way that was difficult to ignore. Cheney is lucky; as vice president, he can’t be fired. But his terrible judgment will, at some point, become impossible even for the Beltway crowd not to see.
Joshua Micah Marshall, author of the Talking Points Memo, is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.