Vice President Dick Cheney's West Wing office has freshly painted walls. There are no pictures (yet), which conveys a lack of pretension in this transformed White House. His answers are direct and sound un-focus-grouped.
The previous evening, Cheney had attended a speech by Justice Clarence Thomas, who warned against allowing civility - the new Washington buzzword - to eclipse principle. Not to worry, said Cheney: "In the interest of civility you (can't) sacrifice fundamental beliefs. I think the President has demonstrated he's not prepared to sacrifice principle." But like a weather forecaster who uses radar to observe an approaching storm, Cheney added, "Just because the other side might at some time get mean and nasty, that's no reason for us to deviate from our basic posture and the course we're on."
Cheney said he understands the strategy of some Democrats who want to throw the administration "off course by being less than civil...by using loaded phrases like 'racist' and 'bigot' in order to classify the opposition." The Vice President thinks it's good that the new administration is being compared to one former president's and contrasted with another's. "(President Bush) has done exactly as he has said he would and, clearly, the comparison with the Clinton crowd doesn't hurt...As fans of Ronald Reagan, I think we would be pleased to be compared favorably (with him)."
Cheney said the administration is saddled with the budget crafted by the previous administration, yet in a possible indication of things to come, he said, "I don't want to give away any numbers, partly because they're still moving around a bit, but the pace with which discretionary spending has been advancing will be slowed...We'll have a bigger impact on the budget that goes to Congress a year from now."
The last time Republicans in Congress tried to slow the pace of growth, Democrats howled about "cuts" and engineered two government shutdowns. Cheney doesn't believe that will happen this time: "It's a new day with a Republican President and Congress. A lot this year will focus on tax reduction and tax reform. It's sort of reminiscent of 1981...what Reagan did when he came in, not only cutting taxes but cutting rates. I'm sure there will be arguments over spending, but I don't think we have the situation now where there would be gridlock...We'll be able to put together the kind of appropriations bills for the government that will (avoid gridlock)."
Cheney seemed to be signaling Senate Democrats, who warned the administration not to nominate anyone for the Supreme Court like Attorney General John Ashcroft. "We got a very good man in John Ashcroft," Cheney said. "The President stood by him and got him confirmed. I think you simply look at what he said about picking nominees for various posts, including judges; constructionists, but no litmus test."
The former oilman rejects criticism from environmentalists who oppose new drilling in Alaska. "The debate is largely between those who want to drill somewhere, and those who don't want to drill anywhere," he said. Cheney thinks many people are not aware of the sophisticated technology which allows horizontal drilling up to seven miles from the source of oil. "When you're through," he said, "there will be (no sign) but the wellhead on the surface. We need to educate people so they understand that exploring in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve doesn't mean you create something that looks like Kuwait after the Iraqis set fire to it."
President Bush is noted for giving nicknames to his staff and people he meets. Cheney said Bush's father is known as "No. 41," a reference to his being the 41st President. He said he sees the new President "four to five times a day." He spent the weekend at Camp David with Bush two weeks ago. What did he do? "I shot skeet," Cheney said.
So far, the Bush Administration is shooting down, literally and figuratively, every obstacle in its path. Yet Cheney, the realist with experience, knows that bigger flack is still to come.