Monday, November 03, 2008

The Dark Lord of the Bush Presidency

David Bromwich in The Co-President at Work New York Review of Books 10/22/08 (11/20/08 issue) gives us a good reminder of how this country has been ruled for the last eight years under the Cheney-Bush administration. This is a telling story about Cheney's methods of operation, in this case around his own selection as Vice President:

As early as March 2000, Bush asked him whether he would consider taking the second slot. Cheney at first said no. Later, he agreed to serve as Bush's inspector of the qualifications of others; his lieutenants were David Addington and his daughter Liz. Some way into that work, Bush asked Cheney again, and this time he said yes. The understanding was concluded before any of the lesser candidates were interviewed. It was perhaps the first public deception that they worked at together: a lie of omission - and a trespass against probity - to give an air of legitimacy to the search for a nominee. But their concurrence in the stratagem, and the way each saw the other hold to its terms, signaled an equality in manipulation as no formal contract could have done. It is hardly likely that an exchange of words was necessary.

The vice-presidential search in the spring of 2000 was characteristic of the co-presidency to come in one other way. It involved the collection of information for future use against political rivals. In this case, the rivals were the other potential VPs, among them Lamar Alexander, Chuck Hagel, and Frank Keating. They had been asked to submit exhaustive data concerning friends, enemies, sexual partners, psychological vicissitudes (noting all visits to therapists of any kind), personal embarrassments, and sources of possible slander, plus a complete medical history. Each also signed a notarized letter that gave Cheney the power to request records from doctors without further clearance.

All this information would prove useful in later years. Barton Gellman reveals in Angler that soon after Frank Keating was mentioned as a likely candidate for attorney general, a story appeared in Newsweek about an awkward secret in his past: an eccentric patron had paid for his children's college education. No law had been broken, and nothing wrongly concealed; but the story killed a chance for Keating to be named attorney general; and the leak could only have come from one person. Doubtless most of the secrets in Cheney's possession were the more effective for not being used. [my emphasis]

Along that same line, Bromwich notes, "When he ran for Congress in 1978, and won election for the first of five terms, he got himself quickly appointed to an odd combination of committees: Ethics and Intelligence. They had in common the access they offered to secrets of entirely different kinds."

Bromwich does not refer to the 2006 book by Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein, Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency. But they described that same process of how Cheney manipulated the Vice Presidential nominating process in their book, which was published before those formally included in his review.

Referring to the web of think-tanks and policy groups and personal relationships that Sidney Blumenthal described back in 1986 in The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, Bromwich observes, "Republicans, since 1975, have had a foreign policy establishment that stays in place even when they are out of power."

That's true for domestic policy, as well. And that's not likely to change during an Obama administration. The Democrats have built up more of a "civil society" infrastructure during the last eight years. But what Bromwich writes is still largely true, that "Democrats can claim nothing of the sort". Certainly not on the scale that institutions like the American Enterprise Institute have exercised influence.

And Bromwich is also correct in saying, "Through the continuity of neoconservative advisers, the military-statist wing of the Republican Party has thus, for three decades now, had the consistency and coherence of a shadow government." There's nothing inherently wrong or necessarily destructive about such a thing. On the contrary, parliamentary systems can and do have have more-or-less formal shadow cabinets, in which a member of the main opposition party assumes the role of primary spokesperson on parallel lines to the responsibilities of the Cabinet Ministers. But the neocons and their nationalist/unilateralist allies like Cheney and Don Rumsfeld did have destructive goals in mind. And still do.

I'm not quite ready to adopt Bromwich's formulation in the following. But it is a potentially very useful framework for understanding the foreign-policy neocons, in particular:

Never before, in the history of the United States, has there been an ideological camp so fully formed and equipped to extend itself as neoconservatism in the year 1999. It was, and remains, a sect that has some of the properties of a party. There are mentors now in the generation of the fathers as well as the grandfathers, summer internships for young enthusiasts, semiofficial platforms of programmed reactions to breaking news. But to grasp their collective character, one must think of a party that does not run for office at election time. They can therefore evade responsibility for botched policies and the leaders who promote those policies. Donald Rumsfeld had his first and warmest partisans among the neoconservatives, but they were also the first, with the solitary apparent exception of Cheney, to identify him as a scapegoat for the Iraq war and to call for his firing when the insurgency tore the country apart in 2006. [my emphasis]
Of course, I cried a river over poor Rummy's fall. (NOT!)

One reservation I have about this approach, though, is that it could be taken to imply that the genuinely militaristic ideas of the neocons are more distinct from the Republican Party as such than they really are. The Christian Right activists generally don't consider themselves neoconservatives. But they are the most enthusiastic popular base for the Cheney-Bush foreign policy.

There are those critics of this administration who think Cheney's role is exaggerated by critics arguing along the lines of Bromwich. And we certainly should give Bush a pass on his responsibility for the things he's done even if Cheney masterminded them. But I also have the impression that Cheney has been the most important moving force in this administration, particularly on foreign policy but also on much of domestic policy, like the critical area of energy.

Josh Marshall deserves credit for describing what an outsized role Cheney played in this administration earlier than most in his article Vice Grip Washington Monthly Jan/Feb 2003. And he pointed out how Cheney's influence was especially associated with bad results:

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. .... 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.
And his concluding analysis in that article has been sustained by events in the subsequent years:

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. [my emphasis]
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