What Would Bush's Presidency Have Looked Like Without Cheney?

By Mark JosephProducer/Author, Editor, Bullypulpit.com

I agree with President-elect Barack Obama that George W. Bush was agood guy. I also think that Oliver Stone did a bang-up job of portraying the President in his film "W" as essentially a good guy who simply lost his way. In any event, I just can't bring myself to hate him as so many of his enemies do. He is a complex man, neither a genius nor a dunce, but what interests me even more than an analysis of his presidency-the ups and downs, the triumphs and the missteps, is what his presidency might have looked like had he not selected Dick Cheney to be his second-in-command. Let me stipulate that I'm not a Cheney-hater either. But I've got my questions.

There was a battle for the soul of George W. Bush between Reaganism and Cheneyism (Bush41-ism wasn't even in the race) and Cheneyism triumphed and Reaganism was vanquished.
Ronald Reagan

So far so good. There's nothing wrong with emulating the Gipper--so long as you get the act right. After all Reagan had a pretty good run. But in selecting Cheney, Bush began the long march down a path that would have been foreign in many ways to the Great Communicator and reflected less of the influence that Reagan had once had upon Bush in favor of the long shadow of Cheney.

Stone's biopic of Bush seems to put to rest the Svengali-theory, namely that Cheney called the shots and Bush followed orders. There's a great scene in "W" where Bush asks Cheney not to speak up at cabinet meetings and reminds him not so subtlely who calls the shots. Still, the very fact that Cheney, charged with helping Bush pick a vice presidential nominee, allowed himself to be selected says something about Cheney and the process. Was it a rigged one? No one can say for sure. But it was definitely unusual.

There was a battle for the soul of George W. Bush between Reaganism and Cheneyism (Bush41-ism wasn't even in the race) and Cheneyism triumphed and Reaganism was vanquished.

Cheneyism preceded Reaganism and was forged in the dark days of Watergate when presidential power was waning and was rooted in a man who, running as a congressman from the all-red state of Wyoming, never really had the need to convince, cajole or debate his way into public office. Cheney's congressional seat was his for the asking.

Reaganism on the other hand was rooted in the life of a man who lived in Hollywood among his ideological enemies and somehow managed to hold on to his beliefs and forge strong friendships with those enemies even as he sought to convince them that they were mistaken. Cheneyism was rooted in the notion that it had no need to convince people of or explain policies, but that they could be implemented by brute force and that there was no need to even attempt to win over opponents. Reaganism was grounded in the notion that policies must be explained, detractors won over whenever possible, and that people could, with the right information be converted to another point of view.

During his presidency, Reagan once received a letter from a pro-choice woman protesting his position on abortion. Reagan called the woman from the White House and after convincing her that he was indeed the President, tried to persuade her of why he was right and she was wrong on the issue. Later that night, in his diary, Reagan noted that the woman had promised to rethink her position and noted triumphantly "I think I made a friend today."

It's difficult to imagine Cheney making such a call to any such constituent on any issue.

In fact the selection of Cheney in and of itself was a reflection of Cheneyism instead of Reaganism. Reagan, well aware of the difficulty he would face with the electorate given his unflinching conservatism reached to the center of his party in '76 and '80, picking moderate Republicans like Dick Schweiker and George H.W. Bush to be his running mates. He had an election to win after all, and he knew the country would need reassurance that there'd be a voice of moderation to temper his conservativism. Bush, under Cheney's tutelage, settle on a vice president that did little to calm the nerves of centrists and made no sense in terms of helping Bush to win a state that he might not have otherwise won. It was the pick of a man who thought he was ahead by 20 points instead of one who needed to battle for every last vote and the kind of pick that a man who had never run a competitive race in his political life might have made.

Reaganism was sunny and optimistic. Ideological to be sure, but forward looking. There were lessons to be learned from the past, but settling old scores wasn't on the agenda. Reagan had learned from the Viet Nam war that foreign wars should be fought, but not with American troops and in Nicaragua and Afghanistan he set about to implement a strategy of arming those he deemed "the moral equivalent of our founding fathers," and ensuring their victory, but never committing American troops en masse to fight their wars for them.

Cheneyism on the other hand was about looking at the past for do-overs and re-engaging in long-forgotten battles. Perhaps rightly, perhaps not, Cheney was still miffed about Congress taking away power from Nixon and Ford, and as Ford's chief of staff he had watched the humiliation up close and seemed determined to retake presidential power that had been surrendered. He had also watched as Bush41 made the decision not to take out Sadaam after the Gulf War and in both cases he came to the vice presidency with a determined desire to reverse those and other decisions that he felt had hurt the country.

Cheneyism and Reaganism differed most in the ways in which they viewed the world. Cheney, never known to be a particularly religious man, rarely couched arguments in moral terms. For Reagan, all policies were viewed through the lens of a rather simplistic notion of good and evil and in Reagan's construct, America would always be on the side of good. Thus while Cheneyism would seek to justify water-boarding for example, arguably a torturous act, with a Jack Bauer scenario, Reaganism might very well have argued against it on simple moral grounds that it was wrong and Americans wouldn't engage in it even if it meant losing certain intelligence advantages, because, well, we were Americans and Americans didn't do that sort of thing.

Cheneyism and Reaganism also had differing understandings of how to deal with setbacks. Reagan was as ideological as they came, but also in practice a pragmatist and when the moment called for a change in policy, Reagan could pivot quickly. Cheneyism on the other hand saw setbacks as opportunities to retrench and fight even harder. After suicide bombers blew up a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, Reagan, the man who would later defeat Soviet communism with steel-eyed precision, declared victory and got out as quick as he could. He may have thought it the right thing to do or that the conflict was not worth one more American life, but he also knew that an election was 12 months away and having never run for Congress from Wyoming, he took no chances and got out.

Finally, Cheneyism and Reaganism differed in its understanding of how to best communicate messages to enemies in a manner that would keep them in check and this difference was rooted in how both men came to public life. Reagan was first and foremost an actor and understood that power was best exercised from a distance and without real combat whenever possible, that a bluff was just as good as a blow, so long as your enemy believed it you meant it.

Cheney on the other hand, seemed to believe that brute force must be used to crush enemies. Reagan won most of his battles without firing a shot, by using the actor's technique of frightening opponents into submission or carefully choosing weak opponents who posed no threat, crushing them and sending a message to stronger ones that pre-empted actual, costly fights with them. Whereas Cheneyism required actual combat, the introduction of hundreds of thousands of forces in a show of strength, Reaganism required only a few thousands troops overrunning the harmless Island of Grenada, showing the world that Reagan was willing to do the same thing to them if they needed it. And for the Soviets, Reagan chose the posturing of positioning missiles in Western Europe and inventing a missile defense shield to show them that he was willing to fight if necessary.

But perhaps Reagan's greatest actor's secret was the mind-games he played with his enemies by instilling deep fear in them through remarks that were seemingly off the cuff, but were actually the result of careful calculations. Calling the Soviet Union "The focus of evil in the modern world" struck deep resentment and fear into the Soviet psyche, while his beginning a radio address mic check with the flippant sounding "I have just signed legislation outlawing the Soviet Union forever. We begin bombing in five minutes," horrified them, and likely had them wondering if they were dealing with a crazy old man who just might destroy their country for sport.

All of this leads me to wonder how George W. Bush's presidency would have looked if he had selected a moderate conservative like Michigan Governor John Engler or Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, flipped either of those states from blue to red and picked up 4-5 points in the 2000 race, thereby crusing to a comfortable victory over the hapless Al Gore.

Channeling his inner Reagan, Bush might have dealt with 911 by launching a decade-long struggle to topple Sadaam Hussein in Iraq and Al Quaeda around the world by identifying, supporting and arming their enemies. And at home, he'd likely have worked harder to explain himself and his policies to the American people, instead of telling them his conclusions without explaining how he arrived at them.

A Bush without Cheney would still have struggled and perhaps come to the same conclusions on many issues, but he would have likely done so in the context of a moral framework that marked Reaganism but seemed to be missing from Cheneyism.

George W. Bush leaves office as one of the least popular presidents in the last century and in the aftermath of his presidency, the Republican party, if it is to be rebuilt, must decide which ismit prefers: one that was introduced to it by a sunny, optimistic ideologue, rooted in a notion of morality firmly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, who tempered ideology with just a dash of pragmatism that took into account that the populace had to be wooed if governance were to succeed, versus one introduced by a man who seemed to fail to grasp the notion that a government rooted in the notion of the consent of the governed, invariably meant that it was the job of those that governed it to constantly make efforts to win that consent by continually explaining and winning approval for those policies, and that all decisions needed to be rooted in the historic Judeo-Christian notion of what was right, on occasion at the expense of what was effective.

Mark Joseph is a film producer and marketing expert who has worked on the development and marketing of 25 films. His most recent book is The Lion, The Professor & The Movies: Narnia's Journey To The Big Screen.