In the current atmosphere of public outrage over corporate malfeasance, Vice President Cheney's business dealings—not those of President Bush—pose the biggest political problem for the administration. Bush's dealings with Harken Energy are more than 10 years in the past. The Securities and Exchange Commission has already investigated them and closed the case.
That allows Bush to credibly argue that his behavior at Harken is old news, an issue that has already been raised in three campaigns. "The SEC ... has released the documents," Bush noted last week. "The key documents said there is no case. It was fully investigated by career investigators."
On the other hand, the SEC investigation into the accounting practices of Halliburton, where Cheney served as chief executive officer, is just getting under way. Cheney cannot claim that this is old news, or that it's already been investigated, or that there's nothing there.
A reporter asked Bush, "Are you confident the SEC will find that Vice President Cheney did nothing wrong while at Halliburton?" The president's response—"Yes, I am"—created a stir.
His reply contrasted with that of Cheney adviser Mary Matalin, who declined to answer questions about the Halliburton matter. Matalin said, "Any statement could be misinterpreted as an effort to influence the process of an independent regulatory body, which would be inappropriate."
For the administration, Halliburton is a bigger deal than Harken. Cheney made a lot more money when he sold his company stock just before the price dropped in 2000 than Bush did when he sold stock before a drop in 1990. Halliburton's questionable accounting practices were hidden from regulators and investors for a year.
In the 2000 election, Cheney's corporate experience was a political plus for the GOP ticket. Cheney touted the fact that he had "spent the last five years running a company, global concern," and had been "out in the private sector building a business, hiring people, creating jobs." That experience now looks like a liability. And that is why a lot of people think Cheney may not be on the ticket again in 2004.
Wouldn't dropping Cheney look like an admission of poor judgment by Bush? No, Cheney's health problems provide an easy justification. The gravitas that Cheney provided candidate Bush in 2000 would not be as important to an incumbent president running for re-election.
Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew was investigated in 1973. And he ultimately resigned. Cheney's case is different: The SEC is not investigating any personal wrongdoing on the part of the vice president. Rather, it is investigating his firm's accounting practices—the same kind of accounting practices that have gotten so many companies in trouble and hurt so many investors.
The investigation of Halliburton is already having political consequences. Democrats and labor groups have taken to protesting at Cheney's campaign appearances. When the vice president shows up to raise money for a Republican candidate, the press immediately asks the candidate questions about Cheney's tenure at Halliburton. "Cheney's silence is deafening," a senior House Republican aide told The Washington Post. "It only intensifies the political agony for all of us."
Bush enjoys a kind of political immunity that the vice president does not share, because Americans vote for the president, not for the vice president. The immunity is especially great for Bush right now because the American public sees supporting the president as a gesture of national solidarity at a time of threat.
That explains why Bush is "above it all" in the polls. Despite growing concern over the stock market, the business crisis, and the lack of progress in the war on terrorism, Bush's job-approval ratings remain in the stratosphere. But his personal popularity does not seem to be benefiting other Republicans. It is very odd for a president to be coasting along with a 70 percent approval rating, as he is in this month's New York Times/CBS News poll, while just 36 percent of Americans say they intend to vote for his party in the midterm election.
The Times/CBS poll asked people whether they thought Bush was more committed to protecting the interests of ordinary Americans or the interests of large corporations. The public was split, 42 percent to 42 percent. Compare that with the answers people gave when they were asked the same question about "members of the Bush administration." By more than 2-to-1 (61 percent to 27 percent), respondents said members of the administration favor large corporations over ordinary Americans.
It's the same for the Republican Party. By 2-to-1 (58 percent to 29 percent), Americans say the GOP favors large corporations over ordinary Americans. The president's personal standing does not spill over to his party or to others in his administration, including Cheney.
Democrats fared a good deal better on this question—better even than Bush. By 52 percent to 31 percent, people said Democrats favor ordinary Americans over large corporations. That's why Democrats are so gleeful. They have credibility on this issue, and the Republicans don't. Voters are reluctant to criticize Bush. But it's a midterm election, and he's not on the ballot. Moreover, Democrats don't need to make President Bush a symbol of corporate irresponsibility. They've got Vice President Cheney.