Ballot Box


Dick Cheney deserves at least a bit of grief for superintending the vice-presidential selection process that arrived at the selection of Dick Cheney. One imagines him dispensing helpful advice to the other candidates before their interviews with the presumptive GOP nominee: Tom, hardly anyone knows how much the governor loves to talk about French literature. Frank, maybe you should just ask him straight out how much blow he did in the ‘70s.

In truth, though, it appears that Cheney went along with Bush’s preference rather than the other way around. The logic of the choice may have been something short of inexorable, but it was strong enough. Here’s what makes sense about Cheney as a running mate, from George W’s point of view:

1. Cheney provides Bush with ballast without seriously upstaging him. Had Bush picked a fellow Republican governor with no national profile, the Republican ticket would have seemed dangerously insubstantial. Had Bush persuaded Colin Powell to run, the ticket would have seemed inverted, with the more capable and impressive individual in the subordinate position. Cheney is the Goldilocks of gravitas–he brings not too much of it and not too little.

2. Cheney’s status as a seasoned Beltway insider will be valuable to Bush if he is actually elected. A governor with no experience of how Washington works risks getting himself into serious trouble with the city’s permanent government, as both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton learned the hard way. Cheney knows his way around both Congress and the executive branch and could guide a team of novices from Texas. As a former White House chief of staff, House minority whip, and secretary of defense, Cheney has the process and political skills to help get the Bush administration off on the right foot.

3. Choosing a nominee for the above substantive reasons rather than out of a transparent political calculation is a confident, mature thing to do. Bush looks good by picking someone whose primary value is that he could help the new president govern. As the governor noted at today’s announcement ceremony, “I didn’t pick Dick Cheney because of Wyoming’s three electoral votes. … I picked him because he is, without a doubt, fully capable of being the president of the United States.”

4. Cheney reminds people of what they liked best about the Bush administration, namely the Gulf War. He has substantive experience in foreign affairs, military affairs, and crisis management, the areas where Bush’s greenness gives voters the greatest pause.

Of course, the choice of Cheney has some arguments against it as well. But on consideration, none of these seems like that big a deal.

Objection: Cheney makes it look like Poppy, not W., is running the show.

Rejoinder: Possibly true to some extent, but not necessarily a bad thing. In 1993, the elder Bush was widely ridiculed and nearly despised. Today there is a wealth of affection for the old guy. The notion of the former President Bush advising his callow son on big decisions, at least until said callow son gets the hang of it, is reassuring rather than alarming.

Objection: Cheney has had three heart attacks and a quadruple bypass. He’s a walking time bomb.

Rejoinder: Let’s be brutally frank. It’s no big a deal if the vice president drops dead. All that happens is that the president has to pick a new one.

Objection: Cheney is an oil company executive. That makes a ticket with two former oil barons in the middle of a gas-price spike.

Rejoinder: In other words, Cheney exacerbates an existing problem. He doesn’t create a new one. And Al Gore doesn’t seem to have gotten very far in blaming high gas prices on Bush and his Texas buddies so far.

Objection: Cheney doesn’t bring a big state with him. Wyoming’s three electoral votes were Bush’s anyhow.

Rejoinder: Not being a green-eyeshade electoral college calculation is a net plus. See No. 3 above.

Objection: Cheney had a really conservative voting record in the House. He voted against creating a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and against banning “cop killer” bullets. He’s pro-life with no exceptions even for rape or incest.

Rejoinder: Nonetheless, Cheney is a socially tolerant guy, not a swamp-fever conservative. He had a gay man on his staff in Congress back in the 1980s before it was cool. John McCain voted against the King holiday, too. And nobody cares what the vice president thinks about gun control. Actually agreeing with the GOP platform on abortion is extremely odd for a prominent Republican politician and may prove a meaningful drawback. By picking Cheney, Bush passed up his best opportunity to flip off his party’s right flank.

Objection: Cheney was arrested twice for drunken driving.

Rejoinder: That was 35 years ago. It helps make him interesting.

Objection: He’s a safe choice.

Rejoinder: Exactly.

None of this is to say that Cheney deserves the high regard in which many Washington insiders hold him. In Bob Woodward’s book The Commanders, Cheney comes across as a nakedly political defense secretary who worried about his own image at the expense of decent career officers trying to do their jobs. A mild-mannered establishmentarian, he’s classic vice presidential material. President Bush once gave him an award for falling asleep in more meetings than anyone except Brent Scowcroft. But on balance and given the options, Cheney seems a shrewd pick. Al Gore would be lucky to find someone as suited to the job.

Photograph of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush by Rick Wilking/Reuters.