A Strong Push From Backstage
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Air Force Two touched down at the Greenbrier Valley Airport in West Virginia on Feb. 6, 2003, carrying Vice President Cheney to the annual retreat of Republican House and Senate leaders. He had come to sell them on the economic centerpiece of President Bush's first term: a $674 billion tax cut.
Cheney had spent months making sure the package contained everything he wanted. One thing was missing.
The president had accepted Cheney's diagnosis that the sluggish economy needed a jolt, overruling senior economic advisers who forecast dangerous budget deficits. But Bush rejected one of Cheney's remedies: deep reductions in the capital gains tax on investments.
The vice president "was just hot on that," said Cesar Conda, then Cheney's domestic policy adviser. "It goes to show you: He wins and he loses, and he lost on that one."
Not for long.
As the Republican lawmakers debated in a closed-door session at the Greenbrier resort, the vice president revived the argument, touting his idea as a way to energize a stock market battered by scandals such as Enron. House allies inserted Cheney's cut into their package. But that came at the expense of one of Bush's priorities: abolishing the tax on stock dividends.
Cheney has changed history more than once, earning his reputation as the nation's most powerful vice president. His impact has been on public display in the arenas of foreign policy and homeland security, and in a long-running battle to broaden presidential authority. But he has also been the unseen hand behind some of the president's major domestic initiatives.
Scores of interviews with advisers to the president and vice president, as well as with other senior officials throughout the government, offer a backstage view of how the Bush White House operates. The president is "the decider," as Bush puts it, but the vice president often serves up his menu of choices.
Cheney led a group that winnowed the president's list of potential Supreme Court nominees. Cheney resolved a crisis in the space program after the Columbia shuttle disaster. Cheney fashioned a controversial truce between the legislative and executive branches -- and averted resignations at the top of the Justice Department and the FBI -- over the right of law enforcement authorities to investigate political corruption in Congress.
And it was Cheney who served as the guardian of conservative orthodoxy on budget and tax matters. He shaped and pushed through Bush's tax cuts, blunting the influence of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, a longtime friend, and of Cabinet rivals he had played a principal role in selecting. He managed to overcome the president's "compassionate conservative" resistance to multiple breaks for the wealthy. He even orchestrated a decision to let a GOP senator switch parties -- giving control of the chamber to Democrats -- rather than meet the senator's demand for billions of dollars in new spending.
On the home front, the vice president is well known for leading a secretive task force on energy policy. But in a town where politicians routinely scurry for credit, Cheney more often kept his role concealed, even from top Bush advisers.
"A lot of it was a black box, and I think designedly so," said former Bush speechwriter David Frum. "It was like -- you know that experiment where you pass a magnet under the table and you see the iron filings on the top of the table move? You know there's a magnet there because of what you see happening, but you never see the magnet."