It was just another touchy public-relations moment for Cheney, who has elevated "eat your peas" bluntness to an art form. Initially, his experience and gravitas lent his young boss a needed air of stability. And the breadth of his involvement in the Administration's first 100 days--from shaping Team Bush to playing flak-catcher on the Sunday morning talk shows--had friend and foe alike fearful about his health. But now that Cheney is leaving his imprint on policy, his get-over-it attitude may turn out to be too much even for a Washington still recovering from the misty-eyed, "I-feel-your-pain" Clinton style.
From the day Bush tapped the ex-Defense Secretary and Halliburton Co. exec as his powerful No. 2, Cheney's conservative record has made him a darling of the GOP Right. He hasn't disappointed. Cheney designed the Administration's controversial energy plan, helped convince Bush that global warming needs a lot more scientific study, and pushed for a tough, Reaganesque foreign policy.
However, with Bush's poll numbers slipping, the Senate suddenly in Democratic hands, and the White House under pressure to be more centrist, Cheney is taking heat. "At first, Cheney seemed more like a 19th century prime minister, like a Bismarck or Talleyrand," says Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker. "He is still a plus for Bush. But now the issue becomes: Is Bush getting the right advice?"
If recent polls are any indication, that's an open question. The President's approval rating is off about 10 points from its peak of 64% after the spy plane incident in China, and his standing with independents has eroded. By a wide margin, Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of the energy crunch and give him low marks for sensitivity to environmental issues. Many think that Cheney, a former oilman like his boss, has given conservation short shrift.
"I don't think Dick Cheney should be the spokesman on environmental issues," says Representative Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). Adds James A. Thurber, an American University political scientist: "Cheney is well-liked and a good manager. But he's far more conservative than most Americans. He's from the oil business, and it shows.""HEAVY LIFTING." The Vice-President's defenders respond that his fondness for plain speaking should be applauded--particularly as an antidote to Clintonian slipperiness. "Cheney tells it like he sees it," says White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. "The President appreciates his candor." Notes GOP consultant David Carney: "On energy, Cheney laid down a marker for whatever plan is ultimately adopted. He told the truth when he said, `Folks, windmills won't solve this problem."' Adds Cheney political adviser Mary Matalin: "First he was the co-President, now he's Mr. Brownout. The fact is, he's neither of those things--though he is doing a lot of heavy lifting for George W. Bush."
That may be an understatement. Cheney helps Bush lobby the Hill, with a particular focus on the narrowly divided Senate. He is a major player on defense modernization and foreign policy. He, rather than Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, has been handed the job of giving the country a road map out of the energy crunch. He directs a high-level counterterrorism task force. And several days a week, he hits the road on behalf of GOP congressional candidates. Says one GOP official: "Preventing a GOP disaster in 2002 is a big part of the job."
What about all the criticism Cheney is drawing for being so doctrinaire? Many conservatives consider the attacks an indication of his effectiveness as a lightning rod for Bush. "Cheney can schmooze with the best of them, but that's not his job," notes consultant Carney. "He has to deliver the Republican base so Bush can go after the independent swing voters."NEW TACK. No pol likes to be a pincushion, not even a flinty character like Dick Cheney. So he's trying to mount a charm offensive to disarm critics. At a recent meeting, for instance, his chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, promised enviro leaders more access.
Still, predicts Brookings Institution scholar Paul C. Light, Cheney's combative approach may relegate him from minister without portfolio to a more conventional role as a sometime adviser and full-time political cheerleader. "Over time, he becomes less and less of a benefit for the Administration," Light says. "In part, this is because Bush's Texans will assume more power; in part, it's because you inevitably get criticism when you take on line assignments." The result, he reckons, could be a Cheney confined to the familiar Veep's role: traveling to funerals of foreign dignitaries, firing up the faithful at Lincoln Day dinners, and oh, yes--drawing lots of political flak. By Lee Walczak, with Richard S. Dunham, Lorraine Woellert, and Laura Cohn, in Washington