Politics & Policy

To Cheney …

. . . or not to Cheney?

John Kerry made headlines with the surprise pick of John Edwards as his running mate. At least for the time being, he has helped energize his campaign. This may increase the pressure on George W. Bush to replace Dick Cheney as vice president. By the time the Republican convention meets in New York, Bush may need to do something dramatic to narrow the lead Kerry is likely to be enjoying after the Democratic convention.

Personally, I like Cheney. But there is no question that he is a polarizing figure. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 17 percent of Americans have a very positive view of him, but 27 percent have a very negative view. His overall job-approval rating consistently runs about 10 percentage points below Bush’s.

No one really knows what impact vice presidents have on a presidential ticket. It’s hard to find any election in which the vice presidential nominee was decisive either to its success or failure. Still, in a close election, everything matters, and the vice president is one area where the presidential nominee has some latitude and can at least try to change the election’s dynamics.

One is starting to hear more and more Republicans hint that Bush ought to rethink his decision to run again with Cheney. “A number of well-known party members continue to talk privately about the possibility that Cheney will be replaced before the party’s convention,” the Washington Post reported on last week.

On June 20, avowed Cheney admirer James P. Gannon wrote an open letter in USA Today urging him to step aside for the good of the party. Gannon noted that fairly or unfairly, Cheney’s strong support for the war and ties to Halliburton and the oil industry have made him a lightening rod for Bush’s critics. Said Gannon, “You must ask yourself now if your continued presence … will offer strength or weakness to the Republican ticket in November, and what it will mean for GOP prospects in the future.”

Gannon went on to note that there is precedence for presidents to change vice presidents even in wartime. Abraham Lincoln replaced Hannibal Hamlin with Andrew Johnson in 1864, and Franklin D. Roosevelt dumped Henry Wallace for Harry Truman in 1944. (Thank God!) Furthermore, Cheney’s well-known health problems preclude his being a candidate for president in 2008. “Inaugurating a vice president next January who could step up to lead the party in 2008 would be a great asset for the GOP,” Gannon added.

I made the same argument in the Los Angeles Times on June 6. I suggested that Bush had missed an opportunity to anoint his own successor, someone who would give the Republicans a fighting chance against what likely will be a very strong Democratic ticket probably headed by Hillary Clinton should Kerry lose. Bush could have chosen someone who might otherwise not be a viable candidate due to a lack of electoral experience.

Thinking along the same lines, Arnold Beichman of Stanford’s Hoover Institution made a strong case for Bush to replace Cheney with National Security Adviser Condeleezza Rice in the Washington Times on July 1.

Said Beichman, “It is now time to open a new dramatic episode in American history, one that would show the world what our democracy means: the choice of an extraordinarily talented African-American woman to run for president of the United States on the Republican ticket, the party of Abraham Lincoln.”

My main reservation against Rice is that she is untested electorally, having spent most of her career as a Stanford political science professor. Also, we know nothing about her views on issues outside her area of expertise, foreign policy. What are her positions on abortion, tax cuts, and Medicare? Even she may not know since she may never have had any reason to think about these or the thousand other issues on which presidential candidates must have a position.

The danger of putting an untested academic on the ticket is shown by the experience of Betsy McCaughey, who was plucked out of Columbia University by New York Governor George Pataki to be his running mate in 1994, after she gained national attention as a critic of Bill Clinton’s health plan. She eventually became an embarrassment to Pataki and she was dumped from the ticket in 1998. In retaliation, McCaughey ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and against Pataki on the Liberal party line, doing poorly in both cases.

A more realistic choice for Bush, should he decide to make a change, is Sen. John McCain of Arizona. He clearly would strengthen the ticket and lately has been making nice with Bush and his fellow Republicans, with whom he has often feuded in the past. McCain may also be the only Republican who can beat Mrs. Clinton in 2008.

– Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis. Write to him here.

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