Politics & Policy

Fail Safe

Cheney may be too "safe" for comfort.

Dick Cheney’s appeal to George W. Bush is obvious, as outlined in Friday’s vice beat. Cheney is a Bush family loyalist par excellence, who has worked with W. closely on the vice-presidential selection process. Presumably, Bush almost considers him as trustworthy as the members of his staff troika — it’s almost as if Bush were to pick Karen Hughes or Joe Allbaugh as his veep nominee. Besides loyalty, Cheney’s strengths are that he is safe (he won’t make any boneheaded mistakes) and respected by the press.

The way to think about Cheney is as a “governing” pick. If Bush chooses him, it is primarily because he can fill the job of vice president effectively. The political benefit of a Cheney selection then would be limited to a bank shot: It would serve to highlight Bush’s seriousness about governing. Bush, the argument would go, is not fooling around with the usual political games — which state can he win, etc. — but instead building the best possible team to help him get the job done in Washington. Since seriousness and substance — for instance, his Social Security and education proposals — have helped Bush so far, it is understandable that he would emphasize the same message with his veep pick.

Understandable — but perhaps not wise. Before Bush can govern, he has to win a political campaign, and Cheney’s advantages in this regard seem extraordinarily slim, once you move beyond the supposed benefit of his “seriousness.” The least charitable way to characterize Cheney is as the Republican’s Warren Christopher — a gray politician best suited for handling matters of process, like presidential transitions and vice-presidential selections.

Cheney is dull, and an uninspired campaigner. In fact, it is difficult to imagine him campaigning at all. He is a very old 59 years, no doubt partly because of his heart troubles, which the press will focus on in the immediate aftermath of his selection. He is a reliable conservative, but doesn’t excite any particular political constituency, nor does he appeal to any specific geographic or demographic group. He is associated with Bush’s father, in a way that can only serve to remind people that W. is his father’s “boy” and make it easier for Gore to run against the record of the first Bush administration.

Why this further emphasis on W.’s dependence on his dad’s friends is necessary is unclear. People ALREADY know that Bush will be surrounded by his father’s foreign-policy advisers without making one of them his veep pick. Perhaps Bush really thinks he will need Cheney’s counsel in office — which isn’t particularly reassuring about W.’s confidence in his own ability to do the job. Indeed, Cheney is only about five years older than W. himself, which serves to highlight the younger Bush’s relative lack of accomplishment.

Then, of course, Cheney is the head of oil company at a time when Gore is trying to associate Bush with corporate interests. Finally, Cheney doesn’t look or act like a “new kind Republican” or a “reformer” or an “outsider,” so he may well sap the Bush campaign of some of its freshness and verve.

So, Cheney may be a “safe” choice — but perhaps a little too safe for comfort.


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