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Jewish World Review June 5, 2001 / 15 Sivan, 5761

Chris Matthews

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First teacher Cheney blows the test -- THE attentive parent should always know the teacher. That's especially true when the student is president of the United States.

So let's talk about Dick Cheney and what he's been teaching our boy.

His first assignment was to tutor young George on whom to pick for his vice president. He taught him the evils of picking a Republican moderate who was either pro-choice or anti-Star Wars. Relishing the lesson, Bush picked someone who was pleasantly pro-life and fanatically pro-SDI.

Having assumed the VP's job, Cheney has retained his more vital position as First Teacher. From that catbird's seat, his influence spans as wide as his curriculum. His classes run the gamut from defense to energy to How To Maintain Good Relations With Congress.

Starting with Proper Vice Presidential Selection, the lesson plans have been predictable. Bush is taught to rely on Dick Cheney for his thinking, his strategy, his counsel. Indeed, the vice president is to be his prime surrogate.

Cheney says to focus the Bush energy program on more drilling, more refineries, more pipelines and less whining from the EPA. Bush proves the perfect student, exclaiming with enthusiasm what he finds written in his modest set of notes.

Cheney teaches the ideology of strategic defense with the same gusto. The United States should simply duke it out with the Russians and all the rest of those countries who want to keep the ABM treaty.

In congressional relations, the First Teacher puts forth the same method: our way or the highway. If you can ram a tax bill through Congress, you do it! If you can do it once, you can do it again and again, with energy, strategic defense, and whatever else you'll need to win in 2004.

The defection of Jim Jeffords displays the weakness in the Cheney method. It is all push and no pull. It exploits the zeal of the country's conservative base but fails to lure recruits.

A good teacher would have shown the new president his need for remedial work. One reason candidate George W. Bush lost the New Hampshire primary last year was that he failed to talk substance with the voters. My own fifth-grade daughter noticed that after watching him speak one Sunday afternoon.

Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska criticized Bush last week for doing the same with members of the Senate, trying to woo them with good ole boy malarkey. Instead of mastering the material, Hagel says, Bush relies on nicknaming and towel-snapping.

The charm that worked so well on part-time Texas legislators in Austin does not work so well in Washington.

To build support among the full-time, year-round career professionals in the U.S. Senate, the president needs to dig deep enough into the issues to know where his political problems lie. He needs to focus on the wallflowers as well as the Big Men on Campus. He needs to stop sending "Dick Cheney" to talk to senators, Hagel urgently advises, and go himself, armed personally with the policy knowledge to do the job.

Had he fathomed Jim Jeffords' deep-felt commitment to renewable energy sources, Bush might have connected with the wavering Vermonter.

Perhaps because he didn't, the New Englander who recently comprised the party's leftward flank now sits with the Democrats. The quintet of GOP moderates that once included Jeffords, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, is now a quartet.

The loss of the Senate majority offers a timely lesson on the weakness of the Cheney method just as the Democrats' loss of Congress in 1994 was a timely warning on the weakness of the Hillary Rodham Clinton method of health care. Each relied too greatly on the presumed mental and moral superiority of the proponent.

The question that lingered during this week of Bush's long-overdue visit to California is whether the student president has absorbed it.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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