WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When Dick Cheney finally broke his silence by answering questions from Fox's Brit Hume last Wednesday, four days after the hunting accident, many Republicans could hardly believe it. They were stunned that the vice president indicated he had no regrets about the way the incident was handled. Every Republican I contacted had regrets in abundance.
Bush-bashers delighted in exaggerating Cheney's post-accident conduct as a metaphor for everything wrong with George W. Bush's presidency in its sixth year. Nevertheless, there are supporters of the president (and the vice president, as well) who believe the handling of the accident does reflect structural problems in the Bush White House. Those defects were present from the start of this presidency and remain, in the absence of a basic reconstruction after Bush's re-election.
Republican malaise in Washington derives less from anemic poll ratings than from overriding concern about how the Bush team functions. This anxiety is enhanced because Republican criticism of the White House is seen as evidence of disloyalty and consequently discouraged.
A vivid illustration is provided by Vin Weber, a former congressman who has been a major player in Republican politics for the past quarter of a century. While he now is a Washington lobbyist, he has remained deeply engaged in Republican politics (particularly back in his home state of Minnesota). Following the 2004 election, Weber was reported possibly to be coming to the White House as part of a staff reconstruction. In fact, Weber was willing to accept the economic sacrifice for him and his family by returning to public service.
But no call came from the White House because the president decided to stand pat in his staffing for a second term. Because Weber always has been a team player rather than an open-mouthed critic of his own administration, his comments on page one of last Wednesday's Washington Post attracted special attention. Weber specifically criticized Cheney, contending that the disclosure of the accident "should have been handled differently." In character, the White House let out the word that such mild criticism put this faithful Republican out of line.
Actually, as Weber surely would admit, the problems exposed by the Texas shooting were no aberration. But instead, they are systemic. Andrew Card, as Bush's only presidential chief of staff, has had an extraordinarily long tenure in that post of over five years, but has not dominated the presidential office in the manner of Sherman Adams and James Baker. Card always seemed less formidable than Bush political adviser Karl Rove, who with his additional title of deputy chief of staff mixes politics and policy.
If that is not complicated enough, Cheney is unique in the way he fills his constitutional office. Previous vice presidents either have been ignored or delegated specific duties, but Cheney is alone in emerging as an independent power center. A former White House chief of staff (in the Ford administration), Cheney is at least the equal of Card and Rove. Under this system, Cheney was able to keep quiet for 14 hours his accidental shooting of a fellow hunter.
The result was a week full of embarrassment and confusion, but the broader message is a dysfunctional White House that helps bring about a second term with an unclear domestic agenda and sagging party morale. Reports surfaced periodically during 2005 that new faces would appear in the interest of a more orderly, more effective administration.
Well-placed Republican sources reported that highly regarded Rob Portman, who resigned his congressional seat from Ohio to become U.S. trade representative, would come to the White House as chief of staff with expanded powers. As 2006 began, it was speculated that after the budget was presented former Sen. Phil Gramm would walk away from his lucrative commercial pursuits to become secretary of the treasury and a major positive force in the administration. However, talk of Portman and Gramm arriving appears to be wishful thinking.
The problem can be seen by the White House last week being more aggravated by Vin Weber's mild criticism than exposure of a dysfunctional staff system. The real cause for malaise is fear that the president will decide it is too late for a second-term reconstruction.