By ANN McFEATTERSÃ‚Â
A group of Republican lawmakers was waiting for an elevator on Capitol Hill when one of them said in frustration to his colleagues, “What’s with Cheney? Anybody know?”
One colleague muttered, “The guy’s getting a little strange, seems to me. Big chip on his shoulder.”
Vice President Dick Cheney has re-emerged from the shadows, causing a new ripple of speculation about whether his pit-bull attitude serves the president well, whether he’s the one dictating Iraq policy, whether he’s even thinking clearly.
Cheney, who was in charge of vetting potential running mates for George W. Bush in 2000 and ended up taking the job himself, is an enigma to many. Whether swearing at a Democrat on the Senate floor or calling former defense chief Donald Rumsfeld the best secretary of defense in U.S. history, Cheney’s conduct makes even some Republicans nervous.
Presidential contender Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Cheney have butted heads over U.S. torture policy, with McCain, a Vietnam POW for five years, demanding the White House forbid it. In an interview with a Capitol Hill newspaper, McCain said of Cheney, “The president listens too much to the vice president. Of course, the president bears the ultimate responsibility, but he’s been very badly served by both the vice president and, most of all, the secretary of defense (Rumsfeld).”
When asked about that by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Cheney responded laconically, “So?”
Cheney also told Blitzer that the problem with the situation in Iraq is that America may not have “the stomach to fight.” When asked about the possibility that Iraq may refuse to be a U.S. ally, Cheney insisted that won’t happen and retorted, “That we don’t have the stomach for the fight. That’s the biggest threat.”
Cheney’s statement is amazing. Americans have given the administration a virtual blank check for four years in Iraq. The price tag has included the loss of 3,000 sons and daughters, the disabling of thousands more, the deaths of thousands of Iraqis, the spending of hundreds of billions of dollars and lost prestige around the globe.
No stomach for the fight?
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s vote against President Bush’s decision to send 21,500 more soldiers into Baghdad to try to quell the mounting violence by suicide bombers and warring Iraqis was dismissed by Cheney as meaningless. He said it will be ignored by the White House. Cheney said that any anti-troop-surge resolution passed by the Senate won’t have any effect on White House resolve, but would be “detrimental to the troops” even if funding for Iraq is not cut.
But the defection of Sen. John Warner, R-Va., former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is a telling public-relations blow to the White House.
The pro-military Warner’s decision to co-sponsor a bipartisan resolution against Bush’s strategy is giving other Republicans the courage to question the president, whose policy on Iraq is opposed by six out of 10 Americans.
Such stalwart Republicans as Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, Minnesota’s Norm Coleman, John Cornyn of Texas and Susan Collins of Maine oppose putting more soldiers in harm’s way in Baghdad. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, says Cheney has not been “right one single time on Iraq.”
Cheney argues that the administration has been “enormously successful” in preventing another attack since 9/11 and that one reason is the war in Iraq.
But with Iraq, which was hostile territory for al Qaeda under Saddam Hussein but now increasingly a haven for operatives of the still-at-large Osama bin Laden, Cheney’s boasts seem off-base.
Blitzer asked Cheney about the unhappiness of socially conservative Republicans with the fact that Cheney’s daughter Mary, a lesbian, is pregnant out of wedlock. Cheney snapped that he is happy about getting another grandchild, but called Blitzer “out of line” in asking about it.
Cheney, a former congressman from Wyoming, has been the point man with conservatives. But they are dismayed about the focus on Iraq, saying it has robbed them of the chance to get their agenda through Congress. They want abortion made illegal, tougher curbs on immigrants, more border security, a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, permanent tax cuts and private accounts for Social Security funds.
Cheney will again be in the spotlight when he testifies in the perjury trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, accused of leaking the name of a covert CIA spy to reporters for political purposes. Libby’s defense is that Cheney told him to do it and that he became a scapegoat to protect Karl Rove, Bush’s political guru.
Cheney told Blitzer that any accusation that he’s lost credibility is “hogwash.”
It’s delightful to talk to the sitting vice president about trout fishing in Wyoming. On any other subject, listening to him is unnerving.
Almost, well, a waste of hogwash.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)