WASHINGTON -- Early last Saturday evening, at the end of a week none too happy for George W. Bush, his operatives placed calls to NBC, CBS and ABC. Dick Cheney was made available for all three Sunday morning network talk shows. Each scheduled the Republican vice-presidential candidate, but what transpired revealed surprising problems inside the Bush campaign.
Via satellite from Jackson Hole, Wyo., Cheney looked like somebody who had spent 12 years -- four running the Pentagon, eight as a big business CEO -- giving orders rather than asking for votes. He muffed tough questions about prescription drugs (which he was not expected to know much about) and defense readiness (which he knows a lot about). Worse, he did not reveal what he will do with his Halliburton energy company stock options.
Vice presidents surely do not win or lose elections. Nevertheless, his Sunday performance was worrisome for Republicans, not because of what it showed about Cheney but about the campaign. He was put on national television unprepared defensively and unarmed offensively. Bush is running no worse than even with Al Gore, but Republican politicians still worry. "All of sudden," one such GOP notable told me, "we're on the defensive."
The Republican National Committee (RNC) tried to go on offense last week but had to pull back an anti-Gore television ad personally vetoed by Gov. Bush after being approved by the Bush team in Austin. That preceded the eleventh hour decision to deputize a defenseless Cheney.
"We'll have an announcement in the not-too-distant future of exactly what our proposal is with respect to prescription drugs," Cheney told ABC's Sam Donaldson. Congressional Republicans gasped. Cheney did not mention that Al Gore's plan does not even begin to kick in until 2002 or that there is an alternative GOP approach to this hot-button issue. Indeed, a RNC commercial asserts: "George Bush has a plan."
As a distinguished former Secretary of Defense, Cheney could have been sharper in discussing the state of the military. The problem was Bush's melodramatic declaration that "if called on by the commander in chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report: 'Not ready for duty, sir!'" The Defense Department contends they are ready now, even if the divisions were below standards at the end of 1999.
Cheney tacitly conceded that point, failing to note that the Pentagon arbitrarily revises readiness standards. Bush's defense advisers say the military is prepared for small wars today but unprepared for the future -- a distinction Cheney did not make.
Cheney's overriding problem is the extent to which his fortune hinges on how Halliburton would fare during his vice-presidency. The word from Austin is that Cheney in due time will resolve conflicts of interest posed by millions in stock options, and that's what he said Sunday: "I will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that there is no conflict of interest when I'm sworn in as vice president," he told NBC's Tim Russert. Hard-headed Republicans think that simply is not enough and that Cheney should resolve the issue now.
When all three interrogators pressed Cheney on Halliburton options, he incorrectly cited Robert Rubin as his model. "Bob Rubin managed, for example," he told CBS's Bob Schieffer, "to serve as Treasury Secretary without giving up his considerable interest in Goldman Sachs while he was part of the Clinton administration." It was an incorrect analogy, as the Gore campaign made clear with characteristic speed and ferocity.
Rubin had no stock options, and by converting his ownership in Goldman Sachs to debt, he sacrificed millions of dollars when the investment bank went public. Nobody will ever run a benefit for Rubin, and they won't for Cheney either, even if he forfeits stock options that come due after 2000. He would make an impressive stand for integrity if he just plain gives up those options, selecting public service over wealth.
Why was this problem not anticipated by the Bush campaign when Cheney was tapped for vice president? Why was he put on Sunday's talk shows without sufficient preparation? The Bush campaign may not fully realize it faces a remorseless foe in the Gore campaign that makes running against John McCain look like child's play.