Dick Cheney’s work is done.
As an admirer of the vice president, it gives me no pleasure to advocate that he resign—and the sooner the better—but for Cheney, a loyal Republican, there’s no better final service he can provide his party. Even before the unfortunate hunting accident in Texas on Feb. 11, Cheney was as toxic politically as Newt Gingrich after the former speaker of the House failed to increase the GOP majority in the 1998 midterm elections, the year of Monica Lewinsky.
Cheney faces problems in the run-up to the congressional elections this fall. The mainstream media was shameless in its hounding of the vice president after the hunting mishap—that Cheney stonewalled bigfoot reporters for several days was emotionally satisfying, but in today’s highly charged climate politically stupid—but that doesn’t alter the perception that he’s an old Big Oil grump, not great when consumers are groaning upon opening heating bills.
That Lewis Libby, Cheney’s indicted former chief of staff, is going to trial next year for his role in the utterly absurd Valerie Plame “scandal” provides even more fodder for Democratic candidates this year. The animus toward Cheney is so high-pitched currently that I expect any day for Newsweek or Time to produce a wide-angle photo taken a few years ago at Camden Yards showing the vice president seated seven rows away from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, thus proving that Cheney was “on the take” as well as Tom DeLay and Ralph Reed.
Although the Beltway establishment is atwitter with Cheney resignation scenarios, almost no one thinks that President Bush will ask his valued vice president to walk the plank and step down with a euphemistic explanation that the combination of persistent health problems and anguish over the injury to his friend Harry Whittington has led him, with great sadness, to leave his office prematurely. One of the caricatures of Bush is that, like his father, he’s loyal to a fault—in a normal setting that would be viewed as an attribute—and will carry on with Cheney by his side.
I’m not sure that’s entirely correct: It was the future president who fired John Sununu, Bush 41’s chief of staff, when he became a political liability. In addition, the younger Bush was allegedly in favor of replacing Dan Quayle in the failed ’92 campaign.
The difference between the two Bushes is that the younger man is a superb politician on the campaign stump—a fact that Bill Clinton points out with regularity to myopic Democrats—and it’s my guess that Cheney’s fate is one of the chief topics at the White House today.
There’s really only one candidate for the job should it become available, and that’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. While Bush and Karl Rove are maneuvering behind the scenes to help John McCain win the GOP nomination in ’08, figuring he’s the best bet to defeat the Democratic nominee, there’s no advantage in tapping McCain now. The Arizona senator is enjoying himself too much in the Senate and in media scrums to play second fiddle and doesn’t need a higher profile. Also, Bush, in an election year, has no desire to alienate potential candidates like George Allen, Mitt Romney, and Sam Brownback by favoring a competitor.
More significantly, not only is Rice a qualified replacement for Cheney (and reportedly doesn’t want to run for president herself), but the appointment could help the Republicans enormously both this year and in 2008. Rice would become the highest-ranking black officeholder in American history, as well as the first female vice president. There might be some cultural conservatives grumbling about her somewhat ambiguous stances on abortion and affirmative action, but that would be offset by at least a slight uptick in black and female support for the Bush administration and the Republican Party as a whole. Imagine Rice, free of scandal—illusory or otherwise—campaigning with Michael Steele in Maryland this fall.
A number of conservative pundits think the worst is over for Cheney. I don’t. It was a Jimmy Carter getting attacked by the giant rabbit moment. It’s easy to dismiss extreme partisans like actor/activist Alec Baldwin’s hysterical rant on the Huffington Post (Feb. 17), in which he said, “Cheney is a terrorist. He terrorizes our enemies abroad and innocent citizens here at home indiscriminately. Who ever thought Harry Whittington would be the answer to America’s prayers.”
But when the vice president is invoked in sports stories, that’s something else. The Boston Globe’s Gordon Edes, on Feb. 18, in an interview with hunter/relief pitcher Mike Timlin, felt it necessary to add the following: “Full disclosure: The only hunting I’ve ever done is in a pinball arcade . . . And yeah, I’m one of those guys who never got over Bambi.”
Is the White House willing to endure this distraction, no matter how trivial, this year? I doubt it.
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