- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2001

There is no doubt that Washington has benefited vastly from President Bush's first six weeks in office. The arrogance of power shown by former President Clinton has been a stark contrast to the decency and personable style of Mr. Bush and the team around him. On Friday, over lunch in the Old Executive Office Building, in the very room where former Democratic candidate Al Gore finally conceded defeat, Vice President Dick Cheney gave editors of The Washington Times a taste of the new improved Washington mores. Mr. Cheney's low-key ways are a welcome relief from the supreme sense of entitlement, which characterized Mr. Gore's presidential bid.

In his first editorial board interview since taking office, Mr. Cheney provided insights into the new administration's thinking on a number of domestic and foreign policy issues. In domestic terms, this administration clearly has a rock-solid sense of priorities. On foreign policy, however, its performance is already revealing cracks and fissures, particularly following Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to the Middle East. Mr. Cheney praised President Bush's leadership style: "You hire good people, you give them goals and objectives to follow, broad guidelines, and then turn them loose." That kind of leadership works well when all are reading from the same page. Unfortunately, it is not clear that unanimity exists on Iraq and other important foreign policy questions. Interestingly enough, the Bush administration can boast the greatest number of well-known experts precisely in this area. Are they getting in each other's way, one wonders?

For instance, while Mr. Bush campaigned on taking a much tougher line against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and just recently bombed radar installations outside Baghdad, a 180-degree turn seems to be taking place. "Smart sanctions" that hurt the military, not the Iraqi people, are now being discussed. However, there has been no suggestion that Saddam Hussein will be obliged to provide concessions in return.

As for those dramatic, life-or-death U.N. weapons inspections, Mr. Cheney said, "You know, I think we'd like to see the inspectors back in there." However, he continued, "I don't think we want to hinge our policy just to the question of whether or not the inspectors go back in there." In fact, inspections "may not be as crucial if you've got other measures in place." Mr. Cheney's office later called The Washington Times to qualify his remarks on this subject. However, as described on Page One of this newspaper, even the amended remarks suggested a softening view of this cornerstone of American Iraq policy.

What then will we do to enforce "smart sanctions"? These might be directed against items like the fiber-optic cable network, which the Chinese have supplied the Iraqis. Mr. Cheney said that addressing such problematic exports with the Chinese might mean, well, just that "addressing" them. "I think we've already done it, in effect, by pointing out the fact that they appear to have been operating there in violation of the sanctions by installing that capability for the Iraqis. There've been some reports since then that they've taken that on board and are considering our position."

Even if the Bush administration inherited what Mr. Cheney rightly calls "a mess" in the Middle East from the Clinton team, one would hope it can do a little better than this.

On domestic policy issues, the outlook is brighter. The vice president himself is expected to wield unprecedented power as the administration's primary liaison with Capitol Hill, where he has an office both in the House and in the Senate and where he plans to spend one day every week. Holding the tie-breaking vote in the evenly split Senate will also give him a crucial role. "I would really enjoy casting the tie-breaking vote in the Senate if the president's tax package were to tie," Mr. Cheney said. However, he predicted that "we'll have more than 50 votes for it." He fortunately felt no need to apologize for pushing aggressively for the president's tax-cut package, which the House Ways and Means Committee approved Thursday in a party line vote, even making it retroactive to the first of the year. Here Bush officials have signaled that bipartisanship does not mean caving on principle. Good for them.

Furthermore, as Mr. Cheney emphasized, speaking from 32 years of experience in public life, "it is important to understand that this is a very conservatively based budget." "If you look at the economic assumptions, we have assumed a rate of growth below the blue chip forecast, 3.1 percent instead of 3.3 percent. We assume a rate of growth in revenues below the rate of growth in the economy. We used a static model to analyze the impact of the tax cut, so that there's no feedback anticipated at all." Even so, given the surplus forecast, it is a budget that has room for 4 percent growth in discretionary spending, for the president's campaign-related initiatives, for saving Social Security and getting rid of $2 trillion of debt.

As for the charge leveled by the Democratic leadership that the Bush tax cut will take us back to the spiraling deficits of the Reagan years, Mr. Cheney was at pains to dismiss both the argument and the assumption behind it. For one thing, Mr. Reagan had to get the nation back on track after the Carter years of stagflation, Cold War retreats, national malaise and hollowed out military. We are hardly in such dire straits today. For another, Mr. Reagan's remedy, tax reform, is credited with creating the economic boom that lasted all through the eight Clinton years. This is a proud legacy to build on, and the Bush White House seems to appreciate that. Now they need to remind themselves that Mr. Reagan also left a legacy in foreign policy to be honored.


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