I think what we're getting right now is a taste -- just a taste -- of what American politics would be like if the GOP message machine didn't exist and Republicans were treated in the press the way Democrats are.
This is happening because, with regard to this weekend's shooting incident, Cheney is in charge of the message. Now, I don't agree with John at AMERICAblog that the events of the past few days prove that Cheney is always in charge at the White House. Yes, the Bush-Cheney power relationship is inappropriately skewed, but I think Cheney is content to leave a lot of the political management to Karl Rove and the rest of Bush's team -- and, by extension, to the usual gang of propagandists at right-wing think tanks and the conservative media. The notion to go to war in Iraq? Probably Cheney's. The timing and specifics of the war's rollout? Almost certainly the work of Rove and the rest of the Bush crew. ("From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August" -- White House chief of staff Andrew Card, on the decision to start selling the war in September '02.)
But clearly Cheney's not content to leave message control to the usual gang when the message concerns him. Instead, in this case a weird ego/paranoia cocktail seems to have kicked in. He's been refusing to do the contrite public appearance everyone wants him to do (update: see below*), and he apparently won't let the Rovians send a dozen well-crafted messages out to the right-wing media and the servile centrists in the mainstream press. It looks as if he won't let the propaganda A-team do anything. (At least there's been nothing since the initial suggestion that the incident was Whittington's fault, a line of defense that, er, blew up in the Bushies' faces.)
So we're getting news about a Republican mostly without Republican spin, and mostly without Republican character assassination of critics.
But this isn't quite what politics would be like if the status of the two major parties were reversed. The right has been "working the refs" for twenty-plus years, and by now the press has internalized the message that Democrats are freaks and Republicans are normal, so we're not getting questions, even now, about whether Cheney has a screw loose. Bill Clinton is a son-of-a-drunk sex addict, Al Gore is a compulsive liar, Hillary Clinton has an anger management problem -- but Bush is just a Capraesque, appealingly impetuous Boy Scout and Cheney is, still, merely a tough old bird who likes his privacy. Nobody asks whether he's a Nixon-level paranoid. Reporters, of course, don't need to be warned away from that line of thinking. They're well trained and know they should avoid it.
Oh, well -- it's still fascinating to watch the mishandling of this situation. I think Rove will regain control eventually and turn it around, but who knows? There were suggestions around the time of the Libby indictment that Bush was beginning to resent Daddy Dick for embarrassing him, and now Cheney is making Bush look bad again. Bush will defer to Cheney on a lot of things, but another Cheney-generated blow to his approval rating may really get his back up. What would happen then?
*Ah, here we go -- the beginning of the end of this story:
Vice President Dick Cheney, publicly silent since accidentally shooting a Texas lawyer while hunting last week, will offer his first words on the incident on Wednesday, the White House said.
Cheney will be interviewed by Fox News at 2 p.m. (1900 GMT), White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters. The interview will not be aired live....
Of course not. Cheney has to tell them how to edit it.
But after this he'll be described as thoughtful, contrite, folksy, and grandfatherly, and his critics will be described as unhinged howling banshees. So this is almost over, folks.