Monday, March 22, 2004

Cheney Channels Agnew

The vice president has two jobs in any administration. The first is to have a pulse just in case the president doesn’t, and the second is to be the point man in the administration’s attacks against all opponents, especially during the re-election campaign. Notable examples in recent history have been Dan Quayle under Bush I and Spiro Agnew under Nixon; both outshone themselves as the designated hitters. Agnew, with the help of speechwriter William Safire, gained fame for his attacks on the media, anti-war protesters, and just about anything that ran counter to Nixon’s polarizing strategy of ginning up the “Silent Majority,” which mainly consisted of angry white men fed up with long-haired hippies and uppity minorities. Angew’s meme was “restore law and order” to America. Of course, fate has a knack of striking while the irony is hot, and Agnew resigned in October 1973 for accepting kickbacks when he was the governor of Maryland.

It seems that Dick Cheney is picking up the cudgel as well. He is the designated hit man for the Bush administration, going after John Kerry for being soft on defense and terrorism. Joe Conason notes that as in the fashion of most arrogant men, Cheney has his own problems with credibility when his own record is examined.

Thanks to his status as a longtime Washington insider, Cheney has enjoyed a degree of immunity from the national press corps. That could change soon if his sole role in this campaign is to dismantle the character and credentials of Kerry — whose own record of public and military service contrasts so starkly with his. Aside from nonsense about Boston and Botox, the Republican assault on Kerry has revolved around his alleged softness concerning matters of national security. Both Cheney and Bush have articulated this spin. But in fact, the same accusations could be turned back on the vice president very easily.

In his speech at the Reagan Library, Cheney insinuated that the likely Democratic nominee would prove “entirely inadequate” in the fight against international terrorism, because he supposedly doesn’t realize that we are “at war” with al-Qaida. In fact, Cheney himself is deeply vulnerable on this very point, if the Democrats have the courage to mention what he did — or, more important, didn’t do — in the months before Sept. 11, 2001.

It was Cheney who dismissed the warnings of truly imminent danger from the previous administration’s national security officials. It was Cheney who ignored the years of painstaking work by the Hart-Rudman Commission, insisting that he would chair his own anti-terror task force. It was Cheney who failed to act on that pledge between May 2001, when the president announced that he would head the administration’s counterterror effort, and September, when catastrophe struck. No wonder he tried to bully the Congress into abandoning any investigation of 9/11.

Cheney’s speech mocked Kerry’s alleged “consistency” in opposing new military weapons systems. Aside from the fact that this argument conflates opposition to specific weapons with votes in broader budgetary debates, Cheney is guilty of hypocrisy here too — as Democrats can demonstrate if they confront him. His speech specifically named “the Apache helicopter,” among other systems. Yet as defense secretary, he presided over substantial cuts to precisely the kinds of weapons systems he now chides the Massachusetts senator for opposing — including the Apache.

Indeed, Cheney killed several major weapons systems in those days — including the Navy’s a-12 Stealth fighter and the F-14D Tomcat fighter — sometimes against the fervent recommendations of the armed services chiefs. He cut total troop strength by a half-million and closed more than three dozen military bases. He built far fewer Stealth bombers than the Air Force had wanted and cut back the production of armored tanks. His final budget in 1992 proposed a five year, $50 billion reduction in total defense expenditures. In the argot of GOP propaganda, that can be made to sound like surrender.

At the time, all of those decisions surely seemed responsible to him and others in government. The end of the Cold War called for reductions in the massive military budgets of the Reagan era. But if the Republicans want to start playing patriot games about terror strategies and military spending, then they should find someone else to distort the meaning of votes cast 10 or 20 years ago. Dick Cheney is too vulnerable to make sneering remarks about anyone else’s record. []

As for whether or not Cheney will come to the same end as Agnew, that remains to be seen. The questions about the relationship between Halliburton, Cheney’s former employer, and the Pentagon are still being asked, and the lawsuit about the energy task force seems to have legs, too; Scalia’s refusal to recuse has just added more fuel to that fire. It will probably be to the Democrats’ advantage if Cheney stays right where he is – he represents the most visible and easily-targeted example of the worst excesses of the Republicans. Let us just hope that they take that advantage and run with it.