Cheney hits the road on behalf of Bush team

No. 2: In his second term, the vice president joins high-profile efforts to push the administration's agenda.

April 17, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PEMBERTON, N.J. - A single trailer-mounted road sign greets Vice President Dick Cheney at Burlington County College as his silent motorcade rolls to a stop outside the gym. "BC College Welcomes VP Cheney," it flashes matter-of-factly.

Inside, soothing New Age music sets a mellow mood for a town hall-style event - more board meeting than raucous rally - where Cheney, in his clipped monotone, will speak and answer questions for an hour about President Bush's Social Security overhaul effort, and then be on his way.

The understatement is by design. President Bush's influential No. 2 has not come to rural New Jersey to make a splash or jolt his audience out of the seats. He is here to lend his serious voice and considerable political muscle to Bush's top domestic endeavor: allowing younger workers to divert some of their payroll taxes into private accounts to soften the blow of dwindling Social Security benefits.

Having spent the months after Bush's re-election mostly in the shadows - leading some to speculate that he had surrendered his first-term influence for a more traditional vice presidential role - Cheney is emerging as a more visible, and powerful, part of the president's team.

As Bush settles into his second term with an ambitious list of legacy-building goals, Cheney is playing a pivotal role in defining Bush's domestic and foreign policy and shepherding his agenda through legislative thickets.

"Just as this is Bush's time to write his legacy, it's also Cheney's opportunity to remake policy according to his philosophy," said Joel K. Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University who has written extensively on the vice presidency.

Unlike during Bush's first term, when Cheney wielded much of his influence behind the scenes, the vice president has been raising his profile in recent weeks. He has joined other administration officials on a coast-to-coast tour to sell voters on Bush's Social Security plan, sat for television, radio and newspaper interviews - including one Friday with The Sun - and said he is ready to back a landmark move to change Senate rules to bar Democrats from blocking Bush's judicial nominees through filibusters.

Cheney says his job has not changed, and that it's too early to draw distinctions between this term and Bush's last.

"We're not very far into it yet," he said Friday aboard Air Force Two, as he headed back to Washington after his appearance here. "It's hard to characterize a term until it's over."

But with Bush facing a new set of challenges at home and abroad - including stabilizing the Middle East, repairing relations with allies alienated by his decision to invade Iraq, remaking Social Security and steering his agenda through a Congress bitterly divided over his judicial nominees - Cheney's role may be more important than ever.

The roots of Cheney's power lie in his closeness to Bush, his rich experience in government and his strong ties to the Republican conservative base. His stated lack of personal political ambition - Cheney has said unequivocally that he won't run for president once Bush's term is up - only amplifies those strengths.

Bush has described Cheney as "a solid rock."

"Mine is a job that requires making a lot of decisions, which means I must listen to capable, smart people ... who are able to give good advice when times are good and times aren't so good," Bush told Republicans at a March fund-raiser. Cheney "has been that steady adviser."

Cheney, 64, is Bush's eyes and ears in crucial meetings and gatherings that can decide the fate of the president's plans - the go-to figure with unrivaled access and unquestioned loyalty.

A trusted ally

Republican lawmakers, especially conservatives, trust Cheney as one of their own and see him as an ally who can mediate intraparty divisions when the stakes are high.

"Whenever the ox gets in the ditch, usually the rescue service they send is Dick Cheney," said Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who served with Cheney in the House and worked with him as Republican leader during Cheney's first two years as vice president. "He doesn't talk all the time, so when he finally does talk - when he comes to twist your arm - you know it's a big thing."

When Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, a South Carolina Republican, was about to publicly challenge the president on Social Security, it was Cheney who received the closed-door warning.

Graham said the vice president "squirmed" in the meeting this year when Graham said he wanted to tax the wealthy more heavily to help finance the retirement program. The idea is anathema to many Republicans but seen by some as a consensus-building kernel of any bipartisan compromise this year to shore up Social Security.

Cheney, in his quiet way, murmured, "We'll see," Graham said. Shortly after the meeting, Bush said he was open to the idea.

Weeks later, mingling with a few dozen House conservatives over cocktails at his home, it fell to Cheney to smooth the feathers the tax-increase proposal had ruffled.

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