Cheney, Vice Presidential Power, and the War on Terror

By Goldstein, Joel K. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Cheney, Vice Presidential Power, and the War on Terror


Goldstein, Joel K., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Separation of powers and the related doctrine of checks and balances are prominent among the ways the U.S. Constitution seeks to prevent the concentration of state power and promote good governmental decision making. "If men were angels, no government would be necessary," James Madison famously observed. As they are not, Mr. Madison and his colleagues concluded that "auxiliary precautions," in addition to elections, were needed to impose suitable controls on government. "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," Mr. Madison prescribed (Rossiter 1961, 322). The framers created a system of institutions with allocated, but interdependent, governmental power in an attempt to provide a deliberative and accountable government that would preserve individual liberty.

War invariably puts the greatest stress on that system. The events of September 11, 2001, were no exception. They helped relax traditional checks on the power of the executive branch, allowing the president to exercise greater power than under normal circumstances. They also were associated with a second, closely related, institutional development: an enormous and unprecedented rise in the power of the vice presidency, or at least of its occupant during the two George W. Bush terms, Dick Cheney. During those years, some even took to referring to the "imperial vice presidency" (Blumenthal 2007; Montgomery 2009) or to a Bush-Cheney "co-presidency" (Warshaw 2009). Even if some such claims regarding Cheney's power were inflated, the fact of the assertion was itself suggestive; the claims previously would have been unimaginable.

These two developments were reciprocally related: Vice President Cheney worked to stretch executive power, and the growth of executive power expanded his own domain and influence. Although the war on terror contributed to these two developments in important ways, it was not solely responsible for the growth of either the presidency or the vice presidency that occurred during the Bush years. On the contrary, both developments would have transpired, no doubt differently and in less robust ways, independent of the war on terror.

From the outset, the expansion of presidential powers was a fundamental objective of the Bush presidency, its prominent place on the agenda traceable to Cheney's influence. Well before the hijacked planes struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Cheney was at the forefront of an effort to assert presidential powers and to elevate the presidency at the expense of Congress.

Although the war on terror expanded Cheney's influence, his unprecedented role had independent sources that were firmly in place well before September 11, 2001, and that were also critical. This confluence of factors--the war on terror and Cheney's other, unique sources of power--created a situation that raised novel and fundamental questions regarding the political accountability of a vice president. Cheney's power depended in large part on the absence of less formal, but conventional, restraints on vice presidential conduct that had operated in other recent administrations. The Cheney vice presidency avoided many of the constraints that presidential leadership and the political system normally imposed. It reflected a culture of political unaccountability that transcended the separation of powers debates regarding presidential power. Cheney helped engineer the erosion of these restraints with the actual or tacit support of President Bush. These factors, in addition to the Bush-Cheney views on presidential power, influenced the nature and content of policy making during the Bush administration.

This essay will explore the relationship of the war on terror to the unique Cheney vice presidency. The first section will outline the contours of the vice presidency when Cheney assumed it. The second section will explore the ways in which, and the reasons why, Cheney was able to stretch those boundaries during the seven and a half months before 9/11. …

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