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Thoughts on Darth Cheney

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I’m still not sure how I’m supposed to react to the excellent Washington Post series on Dick Cheney’s tenure as Vice President. On one level, I’m impressed; Richard Cheney is an extraordinarily competent bureaucratic infighter. He has a masterful understanding of the linkage between patronage politics and ideological politics, an understanding that has enabled him to create a group of extremely capable and rigidly loyal underlings. Although the Bush administration in general is without shame, Cheney goes a step beyond; criticism from those who don’t share his ideological preconceptions or his single-minded purpose has no meaning. He’s a bastard, but within the narrow confines of negotiating and navigating government bureaucracy, he’s a magnificent bastard.

Perhaps inevitably, it occurs to me to wonder “what if he were our bastard?” Would I respect and appreciate Cheney if the ideological tables were turned, and if he were using his skills in support of causes I find worthwhile? I would like to think not, and I believe I’m on solid ground with that view. Cheney is a masterfully effective operator within government, but his mode of operation is antithetical to good governance. A bureaucracy should be capable of delivering a service reliably and repeatedly. When the personal influence of a particularly powerful actor is needed to make the system move, government has failed. Indeed, the influence of such an actor is disruptive to the normal course of operations. Also, I think that a commitment to open, well-conceived policymaking is critical to the progressive-liberal conception of government. Cheney’s method of operation is poisonous to the idea that policy should result from open, transparent discussion and debate. It’s not terribly surprising that the very policies that Cheney has most vigorously fought for have been “successful” only in the most temporary bureaucratic sense; a clear line can be drawn between Cheney’s contempt for good policymaking and the disasters that are Iraq and the federal budget.

The things that make Cheney appalling to me should also make him appalling to conservatives. A “principled” conservative (to the extent that the phrase has meaning) should place a high value on accountability and transparency in government. No single individual, especially through unofficial channels and personal influence, should be able to bend the machinery of governance in a particular ideological direction. No single individual should be able to so transform the architecture of government that even the most basic elements of the social contract (freedom from torture, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom from surveillance) become endangered. Indeed, Dick Cheney should be utterly terrifying to an anti-statist or even quasi-anti-statist conservative. He is precisely the kind of figure that conservatives warn against when they speak of the dangers of “big government”.

While some conservatives do view Cheney as a threat, most do not. In part this is because of the good things that Cheney brings; he does, after all, put red meat on the table, whether it’s through shattering international law while torturing America’s enemies or killing thousands of fish while supporting a few economically unviable Western ranchers. It’s more, though, because the anti-statism in the modern Republican Party is less about a fear of the state than an utter contempt for government. Cheney’s depredations don’t bother conservatives because they don’t think that fair play in government is possible. A good conservative should be waging a guerilla war against government, because the system itself is corrupt. If good governance and a competent bureaucracy have no (or even negative) value, then ruining them by ignoring law, precedent, and common sense is a positive good. Sure, Dick Cheney may break government by subverting the machinery for partisan ideological purposes, but since government itself is just a partisan ideological racket, who cares? We should get ours while the getting’s good.

I would also hazard that Cheney himself appeals in another, almost cinematic way. Cheney isn’t Jack Bauer; he’s never going to save the girl, never going to land on an aircraft carrier in a flightsuit. George W. Bush is (or was) the action hero/sex symbol for conservatives. Cheney is the behind-the-scenes-enabler, from a long line of cinematic enablers. He’s Richard Crenna to Bush’s Rambo, Archangel to Bush’s Stringfellow Hawk, Devon Miles to Bush’s Michael Knight. Cheney slides easily into a narrative that conservatives find appealing, in which the extralegal violence that we need is enabled and conducted by people that we trust. Cheney’s ability to fit so comfortably into that narrative (and all of us, not just conservatives, tend to understand politics through familiar narrative), more comfortably, indeed, than the action hero himself, may explain in no small part his enduring appeal to so many conservatives.

Publius also has some detailed thoughts.

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