The Cheney Dilemma


As expected, the Kerry campaign has put George W. Bush in a box with the selection of John Edwards. And there is probably no way for Bush to win this part of the presidential battle.

How has Bush been cornered? Almost any Democratic veep selection–not just Edwards–would have contrasted nicely with the incumbent vice president. It is hard to remember, but four years ago the selection of Dick Cheney was met with near-unanimous approval across the political and journalistic spectrum. “Cheney is a mature veteran of the public and private sectors, one of the best and brightest on the GOP side,” the chorus said. “He’s well prepared to be president if he has to do it, and he’s the voice of experience in the ear of a relatively untested presidential nominee, George W. Bush.”

To put it bluntly, Cheney has blown it. One would have expected a classic Washington establishment insider to know how to keep his reputation intact through innumerable controversies–calling the “right” people here, consulting the “wise” men and women of D.C. there, taking the puffed-up press poobahs of the Capital City to lunch at the White House here and there. Anybody recall how Henry Kissinger came out of the Nixon sleaze and the Vietnam disaster smelling like a bouquet of yellow roses–at least with the bunch that counts in D.C. and New York–despite the fact that he was in both situations up to his eyeballs?

Instead of being Kissinger, Cheney has been Nixon in the Bush term. He has hunkered down in the White House and “undisclosed locations.” He’s been uncommunicative with the broader public and unconcerned about his image until it’s too late. He’s often appeared to be the sinister puppeteer, pulling Bush’s strings on critical matters like Iraq. He’s more associated with the Halliburton scandal than anything else in the public mind. And most importantly from a political standpoint, Dick Cheney is now seen as a rigid ideologue, unconcerned about facts that do not fit into his preconceived notions of the world, too closely tied to the far right and too unacceptable to the voters as a whole to be what he once was: workable standby equipment, a potential president who could take office with popular support.

In short, Cheney has failed his president and become a significant liability.

And look at the results of that failure in the 2004 campaign. It has permitted John Kerry to choose a governmental lightweight, and be praised for it. John Edwards’s single term of office in the Senate has been remarkably undistinguished, noted mainly for his overweening ambition. Just one-and-a-half years into his sole elective office–which he had won narrowly–Edwards was the runner-up for veep in Al Gore’s search. Having been bitten by the presidential political bug (the queen bee of the species), Edwards all but abandoned his Senate seat to seek the presidency. With a left-wing voting record and a shockingly low attendance record on roll call votes that would make any serious senator blush with embarrassment, Edwards gambled that a long-shot bid for national office would be wiser than a questionable chance at reelection to a North Carolina Senate seat that has turned over to the opposition party every six years since 1974.

Many observers have already noted the contrast between the reaction to Edwards’s selection as veep and the 1988 pick of Indiana U.S. Senator Dan Quayle by Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush. Quayle had served eight years in the Senate and four in the U.S. House, but he was derided as too inexperienced to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. The news media had a field day and produced a massive feeding frenzy that stands to this day as second only to Bill Clinton’s scandals among campaign frenzies. Yet Edwards, with half of Quayle’s office experience, was greeted with media hosannas and flowers strewn in his path. The negative media coverage for Quayle–according to political science research–likely cost the first President Bush a point or two in the final tally on Election Day 1988. The positive media coverage for Edwards has added several points to Kerry’s total so far, at least in some surveys.

For Republicans, this is just more evidence of Democratic bias among the news media. Be that as it may, there is a deeper story here: The thin resume of Edwards looks so much better because the thick resume of Cheney now looks so bad. Politics is all about contrast, and Edwards is interpreted by the voters in part by their perceptions of his opponent, the incumbent vice president. On paper, Cheney should easily have the better of the man that Republicans see as nothing more than a young pup, a smoothie, a pretty boy. In reality, Edwards will almost certainly continue to be a relative plus for Kerry, just as Cheney will be a minus for Bush. (For a more balanced look at Edwards’s pluses and minuses, see the Crystal Ball’s instant analysis on the morning Edwards was chosen.

Can Bush do anything about it? Nope. The streets of Washington’s political district are filled with rumors and scenarios where Cheney disappears from the GOP ticket. Yet if Bush drops Cheney, the party conservatives–ever sensitive to a slight–will wail and gnash their teeth, threaten to go fishing on Election Day, and ruin any bounce Bush might get from a substitute veep. If Cheney wants Bush to win, he might want to help the process along by stepping aside. Have you stopped laughing yet? We all know that Cheney still labors under the illusion that he is a plus for Bush, and if doubts ever occur to him, the addiction of the power and the glory of high office acts quickly to banish the thought.

Strange enough, both tickets could be much stronger in the veep slot, though in opposite ways. The Democrats could have someone who is truly seasoned governmentally, and the Republicans could have someone who is actually advantageous politically. But Edwards and Cheney it will be. And, as always, the Republic–which draws its strength from the talents and diversity of the people, not the politicians–will survive and prosper. So will John Kerry. But will George Bush?