Brad DeLong Ponders Three Theories of Relations in the White Palace

In Cheney as Grand Vizier, Brad DeLong wishes that the DC Press Corps would give him enough information to choose between competing theories of Cheney:

What I am hearing from senior Republicans I talk to who talk to people who are in the administration is confused. There are three theories about what is going on:

Theory 1 is, of course, that everything is wonderful. Theory 1 is that the Republican Party by accident stumbled upon a secret of American politics: that the presidency is too big a job for anyone. In 1981, therefore, they accidently divided the presidency into two: Ronald Reagan was Head-of-State, and gave speeches, and awarded medals, and went to events, and waved at the American people; James Baker was Head-of-Government, and did the job of running the country and the administration. Things fell apart in Reagan's second term when Baker decided he was sick of having all the work and little of the glory, decided he wanted to be Treasury Secretary, and switched jobs with Donald Regan. But once you got a new and competent Chief-of-Staff—Howard Baker—in as Head-of-Government, the machine hummed once again.

George W. Bush is, on this theory, a second-rate Ronald Reagan: somebody who can do the job of Head-of-State (although he does not excel at it), and leave the running of the government to those who know policy and politics: Cheney as Grand Vizier, with Andy Card as his deputy running the White House, Donald Rumsfeld as his deputy running foreign policy, and (originally) Paul O'Neill as his deputy running domestic policy. O'Neill didn't work out and had to be replaced. Colin Powell has still not quite internalized the fact that Donald Rumsfeld is really in charge of foreign policy—holds the job of deputy to the Vice President for foreign affairs. But otherwise things have gone fine: Cheney has headed up the government apparatus and made the tough and dangerous decisions, while George W. Bush has done the meeting-and-greeting.

Theory 2 is the other side of the coin that is theory 1. It is that George W. Bush is indeed Head-of-State and that Richard Cheney is Head-of-Government, but that Cheney is not a qualified and competent administrator-policymaker but incompetent, irrational, short-sighted, and no longer up to the job: a guy whose theory of government is “who the hell knows? And this will please the base.” If only Cheney could be levered out of power, and a new Head-of-Government installed—a strong Chief-of-Staff (i.e., not Andrew Card)—things would be fine.

Theory 3 is that George W. Bush was supposed to be Head-of-State, but that those who thought he would be satisfied to let other, wiser heads run the government were guilty of wishful thinking: that George W. Bush wants to be Head-of-Government as well. When he makes decisions, he makes snap judgments based on inadequate information (i.e., that the American economy's biggest problem is “SEC overreach”), and he will not revisit a decision once it has been made. Thus the task of managing George W. Bush is a ticklish one. He's not curious enough to seek out information on his own. So you have to (a) present him with a lump of information that will push him in the direction you want him to go and then (b) get him to immediately make the decision you want him to make—all the while guarding against your bureaucratic enemies who want the decision to go the other way.

Brad rejects Theory 1 on the grounds that our current leaders are demonstrably incompetent, but says that it's not possible to tell whether the fault lies in Cheney (theory 2) or in Bush (theory 3).

As an abstract matter, this all seems completely right, and will no doubt be a question of great interest to historians and biographers. Heck, I'm interested myself. Its practical payoff, however, only comes if Bush drops Cheney from the ticket — a choice that pits the Bush survival instinct against the never-admit-error reflex — or if one but not the other of them suddenly leaves office for some other reason. (Incidentally, I bet on the reflex over the instinct.)

Come November, I hope it all will be, well, academic.

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6 Responses to Brad DeLong Ponders Three Theories of Relations in the White Palace

  1. Pingback: Value Judgment

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    Theory 4 is that George Bush is President, and Cheney is vice President. That’s the one I tend towards.

  3. Jean says:

    The reality is that we have no President. Instead, we have an unelected imposter who usurped powers in a manner too much even for the Court that selected him.

  4. Brad DeLong says:

    Your Theory 4 is Theory 3…

  5. Jean says:

    It matters not whether the problem lies with Bush or Cheney or any number of neocons. The damage has been done. We should all hope that in November the country can begin to heal — and Bush theories will indeed be academic.

  6. Brett Bellmore says:

    Not really, Brad; I don’t think he’s being “managed”. I think, for better or worse, HE is the one in control.


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