Jonah Goldberg
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Take the current argument over Cheney's self-exemption from the rules on how classified documents should be handled. Instead of getting a waiver from the president, Cheney argued that he's immune to executive orders because he's also the president of the Senate and hence a member of the legislative branch too. Not only is this a goofy argument on its face, it does nothing to restore executive authority. It's not like the vice presidency was an outpost of the legislative branch before Watergate. Cheney's argument amounts to a convenient rationalization for his own secretive style.

Such opportunism undermines his more principled arguments and exhausts the goodwill of his defenders, precisely when Cheney needs that goodwill for bigger and better things. And it sends his detractors on the left around the bend, just like President Clinton's abuses - real and perceived - drove many of us on the right to kick our TV sets. The fact is that Cheney's cause isn't helped when millions of Americans think he's a comic-book villain.

A big part of Cheney's appeal in 2000 was that he was the first VP in memory without presidential ambitions. Cheney was going to be a managerial veep, bringing lessons from the private sector and his stint as secretary of defense to the job. That sounded good (and attendance at Cheney Fan Club meetings was high back then). But it turns out there's a benefit to politicians behaving like politicians. If Cheney had been planning his own presidential run, he would have cared more not only about public opinion but about the political relationships he'd need in the future - the same relationships this White House needs now.

"The irony with the Cheney crowd pushing the envelope on presidential power is that the president has now ended up with lesser powers than he would have had if they had made less extravagant monarchical claims," Bruce Fein, an associate deputy attorney general under President Reagan, told the Post.

There's the rub of democratic government. Sure, the act of building consensus often requires sacrificing on your most preferred policies. But such consensus-building actually persuades the public, the bureaucracy and legislators of the necessity to act and reduces the chances they'll turn their back on the whole effort. The Cheney method instead creates a blowback that hobbles your efforts in the long run far more than compromise does.

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Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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