IF PRESIDENT BUSH HOPES the “shake-up” of his administration initiated last week will re-energize his listless presidency, he’s bound to be disappointed. A far more audacious makeover is needed -- one that sends Vice President Dick Cheney into early retirement.
Second terms are notoriously difficult for presidents. For President Bush, it has been disastrous. His swaggering November 2004 news conference -- at which he bragged “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it” -- seems from another era. Whatever political capital existed he has squandered with the Iraq war, the Valerie Plame leak inquiry and his ill-advised plan to partly privatize Social Security. His one victory -- getting two reliable conservative jurists on the U.S. Supreme Court -- is no doubt an enduring one. But there’s nothing else.
Hence the yearning for a fresh start, the illusion of a third term. Ronald Reagan, another president hobbled by a second-term scandal, did manage to jump-start his presidency in its last years by bringing new players into his inner circle and engaging in ambitious arms-reduction talks with the Soviets.
Alas, Bush doesn’t seem inclined to be that bold. The president has named a new chief of staff and budget director, but this is a merely a case of old loyalists getting new titles. The White House also sent much-pummeled press secretary Scott McClellan packing and, in what seems more like truth in packaging than a real change, relieved arch-political operator Karl Rove of his responsibilities for domestic policy.
It’s expected that other heads will soon roll from the Cabinet Room -- but not that of seemingly fireproof Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The ax is rumored to fall on Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, considered a lackluster evangelist for the president’s economic policies.
Regardless of one’s political bias, premature presidential lame-duckitis is not healthy for the nation. And Bush has been on the right side of some important policy debates -- namely, in fighting senseless protectionism in cases like the Dubai ports deal, in strengthening the nation’s trading relationship with China and, more broadly, in supporting immigration reform.
To his credit, Bush has broken with conservatives in his party, especially in the House of Representatives, who take a purely punitive approach to illegal immigration. But if he was once reluctant to use his political capital to win enactment of a balanced immigration bill, Bush now may be too weak to carry the day at a time when some Republicans in Congress will be tempted to move even further in an anti-immigrant direction. A stronger president also would be in a better position to lead the international community on such issues as Iran’s nuclear program.
It’s foolhardy to expect Bush to resurrect his popularity by changing his political stripes entirely. But a return (or a first-time visit) to the principles of “compassionate conservatism” would go a long way. His stance on immigration is appropriately compassionate and conservative, and a reawakening to the evils of huge deficit spending would strengthen the administration’s credibility on economic matters. Bush also should strive to complete ongoing global trade talks, and for that he would have to take on politically popular farm subsidy programs.
But the remaking of the president in the public eye likely will require more than last week’s game of musical chairs. Bush has acknowledged that he has spent much of his political capital on Iraq, and the way to replenish the reserves is to replace the officials most associated with the overreaching that led to the tragedy in Iraq -- and with the administration’s broader disdain for diplomacy.
Yes, that means dismissing Rumsfeld. The secretary should go not because he has been criticized by a group of retired generals but because he embodies the smugness and inability to acknowledge error that has characterized both the Iraq war and the wider war on terrorism. Rumsfeld has been the pinched public face of an administration that has cut legal and humanitarian corners in dealing with people -- including U.S. citizens -- suspected of involvement with terrorists.
Suppose Bush didn’t stop there. Suppose he also asked Cheney, his mentor and friend but an even more polarizing figure than Rumsfeld, to step down.
We know the objections. The vice president is not a mere presidential appointee but an elected constitutional officer. In choosing a replacement, Bush might be pressured to predetermine the outcome of the 2008 Republican presidential race by anointing one would-be successor over another. Throwing Cheney overboard would be an implicit repudiation of the excessively hawkish foreign policy with which the vice president, even more than Rumsfeld, has been associated.
Unlike most vice presidents, Cheney does not aspire to be president, and he is the consummate Bush loyalist. He would not be giving up a political birthright by agreeing to retire (citing health reasons or a concern about the publicity surrounding the trial of his former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby). And the problem of taking sides in the 2008 election is easily solved. Bush could nominate as Cheney’s successor an elder party statesman -- Bob Dole, anyone? -- with no interest in the 2008 nomination.
We even have an answer to the complaint that in jettisoning Cheney, Bush would be repudiating his own record. The truth is that the president, however grudgingly, has recognized that he and the administration made mistakes in the run-up to the war in Iraq and in its aftermath. He has not confessed that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, but he has acknowledged with increasing explicitness that he was wrong to believe that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction.
No longer proclaiming “mission accomplished,” Bush has been pursuing a sadder-but-wiser policy in Iraq that many Democrats also endorse. It involves ramping up the training of Iraqi troops to take over from U.S. forces while leaning on Iraq’s feuding sects to join, however unenthusiastically, in a government of national unity.
Having changed his tune, the president should also think about changing the company he keeps -- big time, as Dick Cheney would say.