Even weakened, Cheney is still formidable

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Well before a jury convicted his former chief of staff of perjury and obstructing justice, evidence was mounting that Vice President Dick Cheney's influence was on the wane.

Cheney's reputation as a hard-line opponent to negotiating with "axis of evil" countries was nudged aside when the administration struck a nuclear arms deal with North Korea and announced it would take part in a regional summit that included Iran.

His hawkish ally and one-time boss, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, was let go after last fall's devastating election losses for Republicans.

Aide's guilt

So when Cheney's indefatigable top assistant, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was found guilty this week in federal court, many in Washington and elsewhere wondered whether the vice president's White House standing suffered a blow.

It likely has, but a battered Cheney could still hold more sway than almost any previous vice president at full strength, analysts and political scientists say.

"I actually don't think that the nature of his influence is going to change that much," said Andrew Rudalevige, an associate professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., who has studied presidential authority.

The Libby trial exposed an unflattering side of a White House determined to control and protect the evidence it offered as justification for the Iraq war, Rudalevige said. But it revealed scant evidence that Cheney and his staff were operating in contradiction to President Bush.

In accord

"There's not a lot to suggest that the president didn't think this was a good idea," Rudalevige said of the details of the Libby case - which included declassifying intelligence information and telling reporters about the identity of a CIA operative as part of a campaign to discredit criticism of the administration's claim that Iraq had sought enriched uranium from Africa.

In the immediate aftermath of the verdict, the White House has shown no signs that Cheney will be any less influential in Oval Office decisions.

White House spokesman Tony Snow responded with a single word - "No" - when asked whether the verdict had altered the relationship between the president and vice president.

"The Bush family historically has valued loyalty, and quite definitely in this particular instance, that loyalty has certainly been there," said Robert F. Durant, a professor of public administration and policy at American University.

"My guess is that, at least for a while, there won't be any kind of distancing," Durant said. "This just comes as one more kind of instance where the internal counsel coming from the vice president is called into question."

For years, Cheney has been regarded as the strongest vice president in history, joining the Republican presidential ticket in 2000 with a resume that provided a hefty counterweight to that of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

He had been a chief of staff for one president (Gerald Ford) and defense secretary for another (George H.W. Bush), in addition to stints as a congressman from Wyoming and chief executive of the oil-services firm Halliburton.

Voice for war

Cheney was a forceful voice for going to war against Iraq and has steadfastly refused to compromise with nations he views as harboring terrorists. He led the administration's post-Sept. 11 push, analysts say, to expand executive branch authority in surveillance and other means.

But in recent weeks, the administration has begun to move in directions different from those Cheney has advocated. An aid pact was negotiated with North Korea in an effort to get that country to abandon nuclear weapons. Iranian representatives will be at the table when the U.S. participates in talks on security between Iraq and its neighbors, despite the Iranians' refusal to end their nuclear program.

"The president has shown flexibility," said George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M; University. "The vice president has not shown that." And in the wake of the Libby verdict, the vice president's views could be pushed further aside, he said.

"Others are not going to be intimidated by the vice president," Edwards said. "It's a subtle thing. It's an intangible."

The White House has not said whether Bush and Cheney have spoken about the Libby verdict.

"The vice president and the president have confidential conversations. They don't share them with us," Snow said. "It's one of the reasons why I think there's so much trust, and also closeness between the two."

Cheney's most recent public task belied any notion of weakened influence. Bush sent him on a lengthy overseas mission last month, which included a stop in Afghanistan and sensitive discussions with Pakistan on clamping down on Taliban and al-Qaida forces within its borders.

Shortly after his return, Cheney was treated for a blood clot in his left leg, a reminder of his long history of cardiac problems. In part because of health issues, Cheney will not be running for president, an unusual deferral for a vice president and one that affects his relationships inside the White House.

Low visibility

Because he has said he has no further political aspirations, Cheney is not looking to distance himself from Bush, analysts say, and continues as a low-visibility confidant.

"It does help him, in the sense that he doesn't need to be thinking about his popularity, and Bush doesn't have to be thinking about Cheney's ambitions," said Terry Moe, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

"Bush can be confident that Cheney is thinking about the administration, and trying to push the administration in what he sees as a positive direction, even if all of the advice is behind the scenes and he doesn't get credit for it."

But having an election in which the White House is a spectator comes with a downside, said Rudalevige, the Dickinson professor.

In the current climate, there is less reason "for the White House to get motivated," he said. "If you have a vice president running, [more] attention will be paid to what is going on."


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