Dick Cheney's Error
For at least six years, as I've become increasingly frustrated by the Bush administration's repeated betrayal of constitutional -- and conservative -- principles, I have defended Vice President Cheney, a man I've known for decades and with whom I served and made common cause in Congress. No longer.
I do not blame Dick Cheney for George W. Bush's transgressions; the president needs no prompting to wrap himself in the cloak of a modern-day king. Nor do I believe that the vice president so enthusiastically supports the Iraq war out of a loyalty to the oil industry that his former employer serves. By all accounts, Cheney's belief in "the military option" and the principle of president-as-decider predates his affiliation with Halliburton.
What, then, is the straw that causes me to finally consign a man I served with in the House Republican leadership to the category of "those about whom we should be greatly concerned"?
It is Cheney's all-too-revealing conversation this week with ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz. On Wednesday, reminded of the public's disapproval of the war in Iraq, now five years old, the vice president shrugged off that fact (and thus, the people themselves) with a one-word answer: "So?"
"So," Mr. Vice President?
Policy, Cheney went on to say, should not be tailored to fit fluctuations in the public attitudes. If there is one thing public attitudes have not been doing, however, it is fluctuating: Resistance to the Bush administration's Iraq policy has been widespread, entrenched and consistent. Whether public opinion is right or wrong, it is not to be cavalierly dismissed.
I recently had the opportunity to address a group of high school students visiting Washington with Presidential Classroom, an organization that teaches citizenship and encourages participation in the public sphere. One of those students asked me what, in my 16 years in Congress, had been my most difficult decision.
It was not a question that required much reflection -- in 1990, as chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee and the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on foreign operations, I played a leading role in gaining congressional authorization for the Persian Gulf War.
The decision to go to war, I told the students -- to send young Americans off to battle, knowing that some will die -- is the single most difficult choice any public official can be called upon to make. That is precisely why the nation's Founders, aware of the deadly wars of Europe, deliberately withheld from the executive branch the power to engage in war unless such action was expressly approved by the people themselves, through their representatives in Congress.
Cheney told Raddatz that American war policy should not be affected by the views of the people. But that is precisely whose views should matter: It is the people who should decide whether the nation shall go to war. That is not a radical, or liberal, or unpatriotic idea. It is the very heart of America's constitutional system.
In Europe, before America's founding, there were rulers and their subjects. The Founders decided that in the United States there would be not subjects but citizens. Rulers tell their subjects what to do, but citizens tell their government what to do.
If Dick Cheney believes, as he obviously does, that the war in Iraq is vital to American interests, it is his job, and that of President Bush, to make the case with sufficient proof to win the necessary public support.
That is the difference between a strong president (one who leads) and a strong presidency (one in which ultimate power resides in the hands of a single person). Bush is officially America's "head of state," but he is not the head of government; he is the head of one branch of our government, and it's not the branch that decides on war and peace.
When the vice president dismisses public opposition to war with a simple "So?" he violates the single most important element in the American system of government: Here, the people rule.
Mickey Edwards, a lecturer at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, served in the House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993. He is the author of "Reclaiming Conservatism."