The Rocky Rollout of Cheney's Energy Plan

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Vice President Cheney during an interview May 14, 2001

"We need a new tone in Washington," George W. Bush pleaded last week as he unveiled his national energy plan, "one that is less suspicious, less punitive, less rancorous."

He might have been talking about his own White House. The much-vaunted discipline and collegiality that have defined the Bush operation since Inauguration Day have been breaking down in recent weeks over the marketing of the energy plan. The trouble started in Toronto at the end of April, when Vice President Dick Cheney, whose task force drew up the plan, delivered a speech in which he seemed to mock conservation as a means of dealing with energy shortages. The attempt was to lay out the dire reality; the effect was to just sound dour. One sentence in particular — "conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy" — led to a wave of bad press and gave the administration's critics fresh ammunition to dismiss the plan as a sop to the oil, gas and coal industries. That characterization may have been an over-reaction, say critics, but why bait the enemy? Cheney's speech, says a senior administration official, "took a punch when it didn't need to."

Is the White House tone deaf, or is it Cheney?

Top aides to President Bush didn't see a copy of Cheney's speech until the day he delivered it — a lapse in coordination that led some West Wing occupants to question whether the Vice President's staff was either tone deaf or worse when it came to handling public relations on this sensitive issue. Senior officials in the White House and some cabinet agencies complain that Cheney's team played into, rather than diminished, fears that the plan would be too heavily tilted to oil and gas interests. "The President and Vice President just have different styles," concedes one senior administration official, using phrasing that passes for high insubordination in the Bush White House. But the official was right. Even though Bush and Cheney are in complete agreement on the policies, the difference in tone between Cheney's blunt speech and Bush's conciliatory one last week couldn't have been more stark.

Mary Matalin, a senior adviser to Cheney, brought in an outside public relations consultant, Jim Sims, to help with the plan's rollout. But in a conference call with administration allies last Tuesday, Matalin railed against what she called the press's "ignorance about energy" and the unfair coverage of the plan. By then, Bush aides were happy to have regained control of the roll out of the energy policy message from Cheney's office and efforts were under way to amp up the conservation message that some felt was missing in the previous weeks. "I take responsibility for absorption in the policy and blindness to the politics," says Matalin. "But this is one of those cases where perception is not reality. Reality is reality. Democrats are going to overplay the politics."

Cheney retreats behind behind-the-scenes

The public White House recalibration itself was by no means a unanimous approach. Some in the administration and outside advisers who have helped with the plan argued that the White House was not being combative enough with liberals who see this as an opportunity to score political points. "The White House doesn't know what they are up against," said one.

Now that the hard sell begins "Cheney's work is done," according to a senior aide. Next week Energy Secretary Spence Abraham will be hitting the road to try to sell the plan and the president will take it to energy-starved California. And though Cheney led the task force that devised the plan, putting in countless hours of detail work while the President focused on other issues, the product no longer carries his name or title. Until last week, internal copies of the task force's 176-page report had a royal blue cover bearing the Vice Presidential seal. But when the report was officially released, the Presidential seal was in its place.

With reporting by Adam Zagorin