Politics & Policy

The Indispensible Man

The importance of having Dick Cheney.

Editor’s Note: This piece will appear in the August 9, 2004, issue of National Review.

When former President Bush notified the Republican House leader in 1989 that he was nominating Dick Cheney to be secretary of defense, Bob Michel was reportedly distraught. He said, “Mr. President, you’re taking my right arm.” The current President Bush has no intention of suffering such an amputation. “Dick Cheney is the best vice president this nation has ever had,” Bush frequently declares to enthusiastic applause on the campaign trail. His predecessors predictably bestowed similar accolades upon their choices, although this president is the only one who freely allows, “My mother may not agree.” He is also the only one with a vice president whose intellect, experience, temperament, and character have made him both indispensable to the administration and an asset on the campaign trail.

“Dick Cheney was made for the kind of race we’re going to be running this year,” says Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman, dismissing out of hand the recent speculation that Cheney’s winning gravitas in 2000 has been replaced by a worrisome gravity in 2004. “This race turns on very big questions and no one is better qualified and able to articulate them than Dick Cheney,” Mehlman adds.

In contrast to 1992, when some administration insiders were urging a vice-presidential substitution, the baseless speculation about whether Cheney will remain on the ticket has been largely the handiwork of Democratic strategists–in the hope that their mischaracterizations of the vice president might stick. The disinformation campaign dubs Cheney a “ball and chain that Bush is carrying around,” because the vice president is seen as “stubborn and ideological.” He is “secretive” and far too “dark and dour” to win a face-off with the “sunny and expansive” Edwards. (Of course, talking about Cheney’s alleged handicaps distracts attention from the disappointingly modest boost the sunny John Edwards gave Kerry’s ticket.)

The poll ratings that Democrats elatedly cite as evidence of Cheney’s drag on Bush’s own ticket are actually the standard for vice presidents. President Bush’s favorability rating is a little higher than Cheney’s, but so too is his unfavorability rating. GOP pollster Ed Goeas explains that voters view a vice president through the prism of the president, not the reverse. And in the most recent Gallup poll, 46 percent had a favorable view of Dick Cheney, compared with 42 percent who rated him unfavorably. Goeas points out that in June 2000–when Al Gore had a 47-44 favorable/unfavorable rating–rather than despairing about the obvious damaged goods they had on their hands, Democrats were eagerly looking forward to nominating him for president. Gallup found that the 59 percent of Americans who now think that Cheney should remain on the ticket is up from a year ago.

While the vice president is enormously popular with conservative voters, his campaigning hasn’t been limited to enthusing the GOP’s base in Bush’s red states. In recent days, Cheney has made campaign stops in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania in addition to Missouri and Ohio. Ed Goeas’s bipartisan Battleground poll shows that Cheney enjoys a net positive rating of over 20 points among suburban men and women. Veterans have a net positive view of Cheney by over 10 points. The data also bear out Mehlman’s view of the man and the moment: Voters who see the terrorist threat as the most important issue approve of the vice president by a 61-31 margin, those most concerned about prosperity by a 52-43 margin, and those most concerned about taxes by a margin of 62-31. These are enviable ratings for this rarest of political specimens: one who doesn’t care a whit about burnishing his image.

The stump speech Cheney delivers during the campaigning he relishes includes a powerful, and persuasive, perspective on the War on Terror, along with some of the most effective jabs at the competition. “There is a difference between leading a coalition of many nations and submitting to the objections of a few.” And, “America will never go back to the false comforts of the world before 9/11.” He points out that Senators Kerry and Edwards “are criticizing the president for looking at the same information they did and coming to the same conclusion they did.” Reporters who join him on the road marvel that he is so relaxed, informal, and friendly. They seem to notice–finally–the ever-present amused half-smile, and appreciate firsthand the quick, dry wit.

News reports invariably conclude–rightly–that Dick Cheney is unlikely to leave the ticket; but the reasons they cite are as inaccurate as the Democrats’ analysis of the vice president’s vulnerabilities.

Cheney is a sure bet to remain on the ticket not because President Bush is too loyal to dump someone who has served so selflessly (although this is true of Bush). It is true that, for conservatives, replacing Cheney would be “worse than raising taxes,” but he doesn’t owe his re-nomination to a fear that the party’s base would revolt. Nor is the dread of setting off a succession fight keeping a vice president with no higher aspirations on the ticket. Dick Cheney enjoys ironclad job security, and will share the ballot with George W. Bush again in November, simply because he has proven to be such a splendid choice.

Former congressman Vin Weber sheepishly allows that, when he was elected to the House in 1980, one of his first acts was to vote against Cheney for a GOP leadership post–because the proud Reaganite thought his Wyoming colleague was the moderate in the race. He later appreciated that Cheney was “in every respect one of the most principled conservatives in Congress.” Weber points out that Cheney’s vast previous experience on Capitol Hill, in the White House, and at the Pentagon explains why President Bush has avoided the pitfalls that have tripped up others who also made a virtue of being from “outside the Beltway.” He’s convinced that if a Democratic president enjoyed such an “ideal partnership” with his vice president, liberal historians would be celebrating a “historic advance in American governance that has finally made the vice presidency a serious institution rather than a holding tank in case of a catastrophe.” Dick Cheney meets with heads of state while they are still breathing.

When 34-year-old Dick Cheney was the youngest chief of staff in history in the Ford White House, his secret-service codename was “Backseat.” During that stint, Cheney was the in-house conservative, and in the first Bush administration he was frequently, but always discreetly, at odds with Jim Baker and Brent Scowcroft. Now this committed conservative is philosophically compatible with his boss, but the most important reason the partnership operates so seamlessly is that “Backseat” firmly insists on recognizing who is in the driver’s seat.

Vice President Cheney is tasked with helping to develop national-security and economic-policy options for the president’s consideration. Although he has been known to balk at including some administration initiatives in his own speeches (“I just don’t believe in that”), aides recount that in meetings with cabinet officials and senior staff he asks detailed policy questions without ever revealing his own views. His staff is unaware of whether issues have even been raised with the president, and learn nothing about what advice Cheney has offered. His power doesn’t derive from choosing policy winners and losers: Dick Cheney is the most consequential vice president in history because his vast experience, lively intellect, and policy know-how are reserved for the president alone. His only agenda is to provide thoughtful and thorough counsel, and as a result he enjoys the president’s absolute trust.

Cheney also inspires confidence and a striking loyalty from those who know him best. Aides value the challenge of working for someone so actively engaged in ideas, and appreciate his easygoing manner as an antidote to the pressures of working in the White House. “Hi. It’s Dick Cheney,” announces him on the phone, and a simple “D” will adorn a memo. One aide contrasts this doting grandfather of four with other powerful politicians by pointing out that he is so unflappable and even-tempered that “there is no need to feel the outside of the door before going in.” His staff talks about remaining undistracted in the face of almost daily incoming partisan fire owing to Cheney’s “this too shall pass” attitude, stemming from his decades in the political arena. His equanimity has certainly been appropriate, given that the alleged controversies swirling around him all seem to have fizzled out.

The vice president’s refusal to turn over the internal notes of his energy task force, based on the separation-of-powers principle he has championed since he served in the House, was recently recognized as a valid constitutional issue by a 7-2 Supreme Court majority. The charge that he leaned on CIA analysts to exaggerate Saddam’s weapons capacity was refuted by the Senate Intelligence Committee report that found that, rather than feeling pressured by Cheney, intelligence analysts appreciated his informed interest. The claim that Saddam attempted to buy uranium from Niger has been borne out, while most of Joe Wilson’s charges about the administration’s perfidy haven’t been. In the face of all of these debunked accusations, the vice president counseled his staff to just do their work. “‘Work’ is a big word around here,” a staffer explains.

The vice president is not as detached about the phony charges of steering war profits to his former firm, which was routinely granted contracts under the same terms–for the same kind of emergency work–by the Clinton administration. He regrets that Halliburton is being attacked because of the agenda of his political enemies, and he resents his personal integrity being questioned when he has no financial interest in the company’s fortunes. Before becoming vice president, Cheney put options on over 400,000 Halliburton shares in a trust with proceeds donated to charities, including a private scholarship fund for D.C. schoolchildren. His deferred compensation from the company, both modest and irreversible, is insured and therefore divorced from the company’s profits or losses.

Since being tapped by Kerry, John Edwards has accused Cheney of “being out of touch with the lives of ordinary Americans.” At last year’s Gridiron Dinner, the officially off-the-record swell affair where top officials poke fun at themselves for the amusement of Washington’s insiders, the freshman senator displayed his own common touch when he objected to the claim that frivolous lawsuits never helped anyone by saying, “Yeah, tell that to my new house in Georgetown.” At this year’s dinner in early March, Cheney delivered his opinion of Edwards when he responded to a mock question by declaring, “I think he’s as cute as a button.”

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