Faithless Elector Watch: Was Cheney Naughty in ’76?

Dick Cheney hosted a conference call Monday evening with the Bush electors. According to Virginia GOP elector Frances Sadler, Cheney gave the electors a pep talk, said he was “looking forward to being in the administration,” and was “very upbeat.” Clearly, the call was meant to convey the message: Do Not Bolt! In a Dec. 14 Wall Street Journal story, Tom Hamburger reports: “Similar calls are expected in the next week, though [Bush campaign spokesman Ray] Sullivan stresses that ‘we don’t want to pester them.’ ” (Sadler, incidentally, has been misidentified as a possible flip to Gore; she wants it known that she’s a “staunch Republican activist” and “I don’t want Al Gore.”)

What Chatterbox wants to know is: Has Dick Cheney always been a stiffener of electors’ spines?

It would be rank speculation to suggest that Cheney had any knowledge of, or participation in, the Bush campaign’s alleged plot to flip Gore electors, as reported shortly before Election Day by Michael Kramer of the Daily News. (This was back when the contemplated scenario was that Bush would win the popular vote and Gore would win the electoral vote.) As Bush defenders correctly point out, Kramer didn’t get any Bush campaign staffers on the record. But before Cheney was George W. Bush’s running mate–way back when Dubya was just the party-hearty son of the Central Intelligence Agency chief–Cheney served as Gerald Ford’s White House chief of staff. In which capacity, he was also de facto campaign manager for Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign. As veteran political reporter Jules Witcover writes in his book No Way To Pick a President,

Ford, cutting himself loose from the discredited Nixon and most of the gang of political operatives who had helped win the White House for him twice and then helped him lose it in the Watergate mess, put his White House chief of staff, Richard Cheney, in overall charge. Cheney hired some of the most respected and ethical political consultants in Republican politics, including Bob Teeter, the party’s premier pollster; Stuart Spencer, half of the old California team of Spencer and Roberts, as the campaign’s troubleshooter; and the highly respected Washington-based team of Bailey and Deardourff.

Further confirmation that Cheney was deeply involved in running Ford’s 1976 campaign can be found in Cheney’s bio on the Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum Web site, which states, “The two topics most heavily documented in the Cheney files are the 1976 presidential campaign and the 1975 investigations of the intelligence community.” (Check out, for instance, this September 1976 memo from David Gergen to Dick Cheney about “Debate Strategies.”) In the Ford campaign, Cheney was the Guy–or at least one of the two Main Guys. The other was campaign chairman James Baker.

Chatterbox hammers away at this point because, as he noted in an earlier item ( “Ask Doctor Faithless!”), there is reason to believe that the Ford campaign spent some of Election Night that year contemplating schemes to lure Carter electors over to Ford. This information comes from Ford’s running mate, Bob Dole. Previously, Chatterbox expressed some uncertainty whether Dole’s comment, in a Jan. 1977 Senate hearing, constituted an outright admission that the Ford campaign was looking to flip Democratic electors. Now, however, Chatterbox has examined the text of the hearing itself and some contemporaneous news clippings. These reduce the ambiguity very nearly to zero. Here’s what Dole, who was testifying in favor of ditching the Electoral College, said at the hearing (this is a more complete version of the Dole remarks that Chatterbox quoted earlier):

First of all, if nothing else is done, there ought to be something done to bind the electorate. The freewheeling elector, I think, should be done in. It has been expressed as recently as December when, as I said earlier, one elector did vote for Reagan [who opposed Ford in the primaries that year]. I don’t know what he would have done–you raised the question: What would have happened had Ford put it together and ended up with 270 electoral votes. Would he have had 270 electoral votes when the Electoral College met and we counted the votes? I don’t know. I guess the way it turned out it would have been 269 to 268. Ford would have still been president. But then you’d be in the shopping business.I can say it didn’t come from President Ford at the White House, but we were looking around on the theory that maybe Ohio might turn around because they had an automatic recount. We were shopping–not shopping, excuse me. Looking around for electors. Some took a look at Missouri, some were looking at Louisiana, some in Mississippi, because their laws are a little bit different. And we might have picked up one or two in Louisiana. There were allegations of fraud maybe in Mississippi, and something else in Missouri. We needed to pick up three or four after Ohio. So that may happen in any event. But it just seems to me that the temptation is there for that elector in a very tight race to really negotiate quite a bunch.

Dole’s comments caught the attention of reporters at the hearing. As the Washington Post’s T.R. Reid related in a story the next day,

Dole explained later to reporters that he had been referring to “just some speculative discussions” among Republican campaign aides when it appeared that Ford might come within four electoral votes of victory. He said Ford had “effectively scotched any plan like that” by conceding to Carter the morning after the election.

A Post editorial a few days later said Dole’s remarks “ought to be enough to do in the Electoral College once and for all.” Failing that, perhaps they ought to prevent any self-righteous denunciations by the Bush transition concerning efforts by Democrats emphatically not affiliated with Gore’s campaign to flip Bush electors.

The obvious question, of course, is whether Cheney (and for that matter, Baker, who was Bush’s recount scold) participated in the Ford campaign’s Wild Night of Naughtiness. It seems to Chatterbox both would have had to have done so. Dole, after all, wasn’t some low-level functionary on the Ford campaign; he was the vice-presidential candidate. What he knew, the guys in charge surely knew. Alas, Chatterbox can’t quite prove it. Doug Bailey, who did ads for the Ford campaign, told Chatterbox,

I remember thinking, and a number of us thinking, somehow hoping to, and then being embarrassed by the fact that we had had the thought, to hope that somehow a couple of states which weren’t going quite right … hoping to turn out with the outcome of the popular vote going Carter’s way but nonetheless we were gonna win it. I remember having those thoughts.

But Bailey emphasized that he was contemplating a recount strategy, not an elector-flipping strategy:

I don’t remember a sit-down discussion or a serious discussion of any kind with anybody about going elector-shopping. … But I’m not sure I would have been in on any such discussion.

Chatterbox has placed calls to Baker, Dole (who may be slightly embarrassed now about the incident, in view of his Nov. 17 New York Times op-ed urging Gore to concede), and a few other Ford campaign aides, and will pass along additional information when he has it. Meanwhile, any comments from the vice president-elect on the topic would be welcome.