Stuart Rothenberg: Cheney's health not yet a crisis for Bush
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's not surprising that members of the national media went into overdrive at the news that Vice President Dick Cheney had walked into the George Washington University Hospital complaining about chest pains. Or that the vice president underwent a procedure to open a partially blocked artery.
Any vice president would get the same treatment, since that person is just "a heartbeat away from the presidency." Cheney's health is even bigger news because he is such an integral part of the administration. Most reporters believe that the Bush administration would be far weaker, far more vulnerable without Dick Cheney.
But at least for now, with Cheney out of the hospital, the bottom line is this: Nothing much has changed in or for the Bush administration. The team, and the agenda, remains in tact.
Cheney is not just another member of the Bush administration. He is a key adviser, strategist and operative who can help move George Bush's agenda through Congress. He can do so because the vice president has the confidence of the president and of members of Congress.
If Cheney were sidelined indefinitely, or if he could no longer participate fully in the administration, Bush would be in trouble. But if the vice president is out of commission for just a few days (as now seems likely), his medical condition is largely irrelevant.
One of the reasons Bush added Cheney to the GOP's national ticket was to add maturity, Washington experience and wisdom to the administration. Cheney has been given broad responsibility by Bush, and the president would likely have to re-configure his administration if he were to lose his vice president.
But, as Mark Twain might have said, reports of Dick Cheney's passing are grossly exaggerated.
Opponents of Bush (and those merely wishing a good story) are asking how Cheney's medical condition will play with the American public. Will the public lose confidence in the White House, start to fret about Bush's future? Can the public accept the uncertainty of a vice president who could have to go back into the hospital three months from now? And what would happen if Cheney became ill while the president was out of the country?
The fact of the matter is that most Americans aren't likely to obsess about Cheney's medical condition. They are more likely to spend time considering who'll win Survivor 2 or whether Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake are going to break up.
The public's view of George Bush will be based on how well the administration handles issues such as taxes, education, campaign finance and Social Security. If the president gets a substantial tax cut and signs an education reform bill, Americans will applaud the administration. Cheney will likely get some credit for any successes, too.
But if the administration miscalculates and fails in the public policy area, Dick Cheney's presence as vice president won't save the administration's reputation.
Dick Cheney may or may not be on the Bush ticket again in 2004. He is unlikely to be on the GOP ticket in 2008. But he's an important asset to George W. Bush right now, and as long as he stays healthy enough to do his job, that's all that really matters.
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