Dump Cheney

A winning strategy for Bush.

Reasons to lose him

Early this year, a rumor spread that President Bush was going to drop Dick Cheney from the 2004 ticket. This turned out to be wishful thinking by liberals and by the sort of moderate Republican internationalists who ran foreign policy during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. By the end of February, Robert Novak reported that “[n]ormally closed-mouthed political operatives” on Bush’s re-election campaign were stating “unequivocally” that Cheney would remain. A story by Stewart M. Powell in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted experts explaining that even if it wanted to, the Bush White House couldn’t drop Cheney, because that would display weakness.

This is nonsense. As Powell’s story noted, in the five previous instances where vice presidents failed to make it onto the re-election ticket, the incumbent president won the election on three occasions (Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Roosevelt again) and lost on two (Benjamin Harrison and Gerald Ford). The only tangible threat posed by dumping a vice president is that it may create a presidential candidate bent on revenge or vindication. But it’s extremely unlikely that Dick Cheney, who is 63 and suffers from heart disease, would ever try. Dumping Dick Cheney would actually be a very smart move.

Before proceeding, Chatterbox should declare his bias, which is against a second Bush term. Loyal Republicans will therefore suspect the argument contained herein is an attempt at sabotage. Not so. As a loyal Democrat, Chatterbox fervently hopes Karl Rove will ignore Chatterbox’s advice. But as a political analyst, Chatterbox thinks Rove would be a fool not to recognize that Bush would benefit from throwing Cheney overboard.

The most obvious reason for Bush to dump Cheney is that it would help him with swing voters. Cheney is a polarizing figure. More than anyone else in the Bush administration, it is Cheney (and his aides) who acted like hot dogs in the run-up to Gulf War II. It was Cheney who insisted, based on “stovepiped” raw intelligence, that Saddam was on the verge of building nuclear weapons. It was Cheney who opposed more firmly than anyone else all attempts to bring the United Nations on board. It was Cheney who insisted, more loudly than anyone else, that Iraq was linked to 9/11 and urged Powell to present unpersuasive evidence on this point to the United Nations. It was Cheney who, as Chatterbox demonstrated yesterday, usurped the president and made the final decision to go to war. It is officials working in Cheney’s office who reportedly are the likeliest White House aides to be indicted for leaking, for political purposes, the identity of CIA employee Valerie Plame. (On another front, it’s also Cheney who told Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill that we learned from the Reagan administration that deficits don’t matter.)

Swing voters aren’t the only ones who are dissatisfied with the current chaos in Iraq. “The base” is upset, too. Nobody supported the Iraq war more ardently than the group of intellectuals known as neoconservatives, and the neocons have lately been complaining about the Bush administration’s conduct of that war. In an April 17 New York Times column, neocon David Brooks declared himself “a more humble hawk” and observed, “[O]ver the past two years many conservatives have grown increasingly exasperated with the administration’s inability to execute its policies semicompetently.” Brooks is especially exercised about two failures: The failure to provide adequate military personnel to maintain order in Iraq, which is chiefly the fault of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and the failure to internationalize the effort to rebuild Iraq, which is chiefly Cheney’s fault. Now, of course, the Bush administration is finally willing to create a larger role for the United Nations, but only because the situation has become desperate. (Even the Coalition Provisional Authority—the United States agency overseeing Iraq—says so.) It’s lemon multilateralism.

Neocons Robert Kagan and William Kristol make the “too few troops” argument in the April 26 Weekly Standard and call on Rumsfeld to resign. Good idea. But dumping Cheney is a better one, for three reasons:

1) Deniability. If Rumsfeld were to get canned before Election Day, it would be impossible for Bush to deny plausibly that he was admitting the Iraq war was planned poorly. There’s simply no other reason for Rumsfeld to go. Cheney, however, has that heart condition. Many people worried that Cheney might die during Bush’s first term (during one hospitalization, Chatterbox rather tastelessly considered whether Rumsfeld might replace Cheney as Shadow President), and it would be easy for Cheney to claim he was stepping down because the stress had become too much.2) Cheney is scarier. Rumsfeld can frequently play the bull in a china shop, but Cheney’s out-of-controlness is more alarming. That’s because Cheney didn’t used to be this way. Nicholas Lemann once aptly compared Cheney’s calming effect as resembling that of “a powerful timed dosage of serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.” Cheney doesn’t have that effect on people anymore. Chatterbox’s working hypothesis is that Cheney, who has always been extremely conservative, but has spent most of his career tending to the agendas and egos of more moderate bosses—President Gerald Ford, House Minority Leader Robert Michel, President George H.W. Bush—got sick of repressing his true instincts. In some ways, Cheney calls to mind Raymond Peepgas, the meek banker in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full who one day decides, against his better judgment, to liberate
A certain red dog. … That was the way he suddenly thought of it; as a red dog you had to be willing to let off the leash. … He could see that wild red dog. … It had a chain around its neck, but the chain was broken. … It was a red bull terrier with its forehead in a dreadful frown and its lower incisors bared and thrust forward. … Every man had that red dog inside him, but only real men dared let him loose.
In Iraq, Cheney lost control. In Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward (channeling Colin Powell) describes Cheney as being in a “fever.” He unleashed his wild red dog. Take that thing away!3) The puppet-master problem. For four years, the public has speculated about the extent to which Bush is Charlie McCarthy * to Cheney’s Edgar Bergen. In his most recent press conference, Bush was twice subjected to the humiliation of being asked why, in his appearance before the 9/11 commission, Bush insisted that he bring Cheney along. He couldn’t come up with an answer that even remotely addressed the question. Dumping Cheney would help dispel this extremely harmful perception.

Of course, if Cheney really is Bush’s puppet master, all talk of dumping Cheney is a waste of time. But that’s a topic for another day.

Correction, April 21, 2004: An earlier version of this column misstated ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy’s name as “Charlie MacArthur.” ( Return to the corrected sentence.)