Rumors of Vice President Cheney’s imminent resignation zipped around Washington even before last weekend’s hunting mishap. These stories are nothing new (see here), but their persistence raises an important question: If Cheney were to leave the vice presidency, for health reasons or something else, who should President Bush choose as his replacement?
Asking the question–as Peggy Noonan did yesterday in the Wall Street Journal–is not to hope that Bush will be called upon to answer it. Nor is it to believe that it will actually happen. Instead, it merely pays homage to the old Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.
First, an essential ground rule: Under the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1967, a new vice president would have to be confirmed not just by a majority of senators but also by a majority in the House. When Spiro Agnew resigned the vice presidency in 1973, Gerald Ford met this condition. So did Nelson Rockefeller, after President Nixon quit and Ford became commander-in-chief in 1974. The procedure lends a very particular kind of political dimension to the choice, and it may have the effect of encouraging an inside-the-Beltway selection, as opposed to a relatively unknown governor (even though the example of Rockefeller, who was governor of New York from 1959 to 1973, may suggest otherwise).
There are two ways of looking at the question of veep succession: Who would Bush pick? Who should he pick? For conservatives, the answers are not necessarily the same.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is perhaps the likeliest choice for Bush: He trusts her and no doubt believes she would carry on his foreign-policy vision, which is how his presidency will be remembered in history, for better or worse. Although she has never held elective office, she is certainly qualified for the job–more so, in fact, than a lot of Washington’s current officeholders.
Beyond that, Bush may find the idea of selecting a black woman to be irresistible. You can almost hear Karl Rove whispering in his ear, “Condi wins in 2008–and this cements your legacy as a president whose agenda, upon leaving office, was affirmed by the voters once again. It’s the next-best thing to a third term.”
For conservatives, Rice would be a cause for concern primarily because she is a blank slate on domestic issues. On abortion, she has said she is pro-choice; on racial preferences, she seems to be at least a moderate supporter of affirmative action. Neither of these is a good sign, though the latter may not matter much in an electoral sense. Her stance on abortion, however, could pose real problems, both for her and for conservatives.
It is entirely possible that she would surprise and delight suspicious pro-lifers: Many of them would want to like her, and she could speak broadly about the culture of life, adopting much of Bush’s rhetoric. She could also signal that she is operationally pro-life on the most pressing issues, from judicial selection to legislation that bans partial-birth abortion. Yet conservatives aren’t looking to be surprised and delighted. Their very temperament calls for something else: They would prefer a veep with a proven track record–not just on abortion, but on any number of issues. Where does Rice stand on federal spending? On tax cuts? On welfare reform? On gay marriage? Conservatives won’t want to feel trapped between their guesses and their hopes.
And this could lead to a political disaster for the GOP. What if Vice President Rice sought the party’s presidential nomination in 2008–but that Republican primary voters rejected her for a true-blue pro-lifer? Suddenly, Bush’s legacy burnishing would backfire: Rice would be the first black veep, the first female veep, and one of the few veeps ever to be rejected by Republican-primary voters. Even if this were done for the purest of pro-life motives, just imagine the message it would inescapably send to black America. It’s enough to make an uncompassionate conservative think twice.
But what if Bush didn’t pick Rice? (She might not even want the job.) For conservatives, the very best outcome would be for Bush to tap a principled conservative who is capable of winning the GOP presidential nomination and the general election in 2008. This person does not necessarily have to be someone who previously has expressed interest in running for the White House, but it would have to be someone who has enough ambition and talent to do so. A new Republican vice president who wants to run in 2008 immediately would become the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, almost no matter what.
For starters, there’s a senator from Arizona. No, not that senator–the other one. Jon Kyl is well liked by all of the vital constituencies within conservatism and his record as a leader in Congress is impressive, especially on foreign policy. Others senators who might deserve consideration include George Allen of Virginia and Sam Brownback of Kansas. A minor downside for all three of them: They come from states with Democratic governors, meaning the GOP almost certainly would lose the Senate seat. In Arizona, the loss might be temporary. Two words: Senator Shadegg.
Among governors, there are several standouts. Jeb Bush of Florida is one of them; he is also an impossibility. Haley Barbour of Mississippi is perhaps the only politician in America who actually improved his reputation following Hurricane Katrina. In the current political environment, however, he may be too closely tied to K Street. Mark Sanford of South Carolina is well liked on the Right, but so far he has not demonstrated an ability to force an aggressive agenda through his legislature. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts has intrigued conservatives lately, but many of them also would like to wait and see how he performs in a GOP primary. Dark horse: Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who was Bush’s budget director for two-and-a-half years. A traditional weakness of governors is that they have no foreign-policy experience, and that’s certainly true for each of these men. By 2008, of course, a veep would have obtained a good amount of on-the-job training.
Perhaps conservatives should hope that Bush doesn’t even attempt to choose a successor, on the theory that a man capable of picking Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court is a man capable of doing much, much worse than Condi Rice. A new vice president could be a successor to Cheney in more ways than one: He inherits the office, as well as Cheney’s determination not to rise above it unless absolutely necessary. In other words, the next vice president could be a placeholder who serves the administration ably and leaves the field for 2008 as wide open as it is right now. Under a certain set of circumstances involving Cheney’s health, his wife Lynne might fit this job description. Although she has never faced voters, she is comfortable in the public eye. There’s also Bob Dole, who is now something of an elder statesman in the GOP. Even though voters rejected him as a presidential candidate in 1996, he would be a reassuring figure. But is he too old? Time magazine asked the question on its cover more than ten years ago. In July, Dole will turn 83.
Bush could also go in another direction entirely. There is occasional talk in Washington about the value of having a politician on the Supreme Court–most of it bunk, of course. But how about bringing a Supreme Court justice more directly into the world of politics? It leads to an obvious conclusion: John Roberts for veep!
–John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America..