Bushs Big No. 2

Spooky Dick Cheney, serving up dripping red meat, defending the honor of Halliburton

Predictably, Republican Party big shots betray the "culture war" conservatives as routinely as Democratic leaders do their own most loyal minorities. The Bush administration has used its clout to pass tax cuts for the wealthy and finance the biggest weapons increase since the Reagan years, including money for research on new nukes and another $10 billion in the 2005 budget for Cheney's prize hobby horse, the Star Wars anti-missile system. (It passed the Senate 98-0.) But when it comes to values stuff, the party tosses its supporters crumbs.

Although Reagan ostensibly backed a constitutional amendment banning abortion, he never pushed for it; in fact, he used to address the annual pro-life rally in Washington, D.C., by phone so he wouldn't be seen with its leaders on the nightly news. The Bush administration has largely done the same, making a halfhearted hash of "faith-based" programs and vaunting a "compromise" stem-cell research decision so cynically incoherent it even got twinkly Michael Kinsley stomping like Rumpelstiltskin. But as for attacking abortion head-on—no way. Bush and Cheney aren't going to champion a certain electoral loser. Especially when losing on values issues is actually good for the party. As Frank observed last week on Charlie Rose, each time an anti-abortion measure fails or a court rules against prayer in the schools, this merely increases the right-wing base's furious sense of impotent victimization.

The conservative shadow play became clear during the recent Senate debate over the amendment banning gay marriage. While Democrats could hardly be bothered to show up in the chamber—the bill's failure was a foregone conclusion—it was a source of high feeling to the Christian right. While Pennsylvania Senator Rick ("Man-on-Dog") Santorum implicitly compared gay marriage to terrorism, Texas Senator John Cornyn compared it to a man marrying a box turtle, an analogy so clueless it made you wonder if Cornyn's performance was an Ali G spoof.

As a born-again MBA from the Harvard Business School, Bush played the issue both ways. He spoke firmly in the amendment's defense, then didn't lift a finger to pass a bill that could only make him seem intolerant. Still, the real farce was the game of Twister played by the Cheney family, which has a lesbian daughter, Mary, in its midst. Or apparently in its midst: although she's director of vice presidential operations for the Bush-Cheney campaign, she's been so invisible that when you Google her name, the first thing that comes up is, which wonders where she's gone. Back during the 2000 campaign, when Republicans wanted to look inclusive, Dick Cheney declared that gay marriage was a question of states' rights. This year, the hard right demanded more, so our very debonair vice president used all his resolve, experience and patriotism to pander: he backed the amendment. But lest we think he actually gives a damn, his terrifying wife, Lynne—who occupies some weird terrain of shame and denial about her daughter's private life—neatly covered the other base. She declared that the gay-marriage question should be left to the states. Say what you will against the right, it's always heartwarming to see mere personal bigotry transcended by reactionary principle.

John Powers' book Sore Winners (and the Rest of Us) in George Bush's America will be published by Doubleday on July 27.
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