By his own laconic standards, Vice President Cheney has launched a major media campaign. He recently went on the Don Imus show. He then submitted to a televised Sunday morning cross-examination for the first time in 17 months. And he came armed with news-making phrases each time.
We'll get to those in a moment. But the true significance of Cheney's relative "burst" of interviews may lie in what they implicitly say about his role in George W. Bush's second term: Cheney is charging ahead with undiminished influence and unshakable self-confidence.
It is still early to say that this state of affairs will continue through the next four years as midterm elections and the 2008 presidential race reshape the political terrain. But there is evidence in the first weeks of the second term to support two broad conclusions:
Pre-election speculation at the White House that Cheney's influence would wane as President Bush sought to show that he was his own master has proved to be at best premature. And the deep splits over the direction of policy on Iraq and other foreign problems have not vanished with Colin Powell's departure and Condoleezza Rice's arrival at the State Department.
These conclusions reinforce each other: Continued divisions over policy fortify Cheney as a center of gravity for Bush on choices of substance. And Cheney's views are so firmly held and starkly stated that they polarize debate within the administration.
Cheney's instinct for the unvarnished was on display during his Jan. 20 conversation with Imus on MSNBC. The vice president did not retreat into diplo-speak when Imus asked him what dangers Iran's nuclear program posed:
Iran's stated intention to destroy Israel meant that "the Israelis might well decide to act first and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards," Cheney replied. His words sent foreign officials skittering to the White House and State Department to ask if the vice president had just endorsed or warned against an Israeli preemptive strike.
Cheney has declined opportunities to dispel that uncharacteristic ambiguity. But the context of his remarks and not-for-attribution statements from senior administration officials establish that he was describing the threat of an Israeli strike as "a fact of life" and a situation "to be avoided" if possible.
With Cheney, there are often deep subterranean roots to the words he utters publicly. Policymakers have run worst-case scenarios involving the relative costs of a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities carried out by Israel vs. one carried out by the United States alone.
The view that prevails in this discussion of hypothetical, in extremis contingencies is that an Israeli assault would inflame the Middle East even more than a U.S. strike on Iran. Cheney's remarks to Imus tend to fit that conclusion.
Appearing Sunday with Chris Wallace on Fox, Cheney delivered an admirably clear policy statement on post-election Iraq and its forthcoming constitution without providing any suggestion of the debate hidden behind his words:
"This is not going to be . . . an Iraqi version of America. This is going to be Iraqi. It's going to be written by the Iraqis, for the Iraqis, implemented and executed by them. And it's absolutely essential that that be allowed to happen."
But the "hands off" approach, which is morally and strategically sound, will be tested as votes continue to stack up against interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the favored candidate of the State Department, the CIA and National Security Council staffers. Greater strains will come if and when a new government dominated by Shiites tries to dismantle the Iraqi intelligence service, which was created by U.S. spooks from the remnants of Saddam Hussein's spy organization.
Rice stayed out of the State-Pentagon-CIA battles and never established bureaucratic control over policy issues at the White House. That left Cheney as Bush's primary reference point when hard decisions had to be made. It could easily happen again.
Bush has moved to integrate Cheney's staff with his in unprecedented fashion. And while Stephen Hadley, Bush's new national security adviser, served as Rice's deputy, he came to prominence as a policymaker at the Defense Department under Cheney in the George H.W. Bush administration, as did Hadley's recently named deputy, J.D. Crouch.
Cheney's experience in the House and now as president of the Senate gives him a major role in shaping strategy on Social Security and other domestic issues. He functions as the mayor of Capitol Hill and explains to Bush the strengths and foibles of that small town's VIPs.
Ask Cheney about his own strengths, and he would probably list one above all: He is not running for president in 2008. He can give Bush advice that is untainted by personal ambition. In his own view, he is a man who knows when to keep his mouth shut. And when to open it.