That Rumbling Is Cheneymania

The columns hyping the VP seem to plead for Bush's OK.

Jonathan Chait

Los Angeles Times

March 25, 2005

In the summer of 2000, Dick Cheney was appointed to find a vice presidential candidate for George W. Bush, and, as we now know, the winner of the search turned out to be Dick Cheney.

Today, Republicans are casting about for a successor to Bush. And the winner of that search just may turn out to be … Dick Cheney again.

The Draft Cheney movement is burbling just below the surface. Fred Barnes suggested it earlier this month in the Weekly Standard. Tod Lindberg of the Washington Times and Lawrence Kudlow of National Review Online echoed Barnes in columns this week.

Cheneymania has reached critical mass.

The obvious objection is that Cheney has denied any interest in running. Cheney's value, as both he and Bush have stated repeatedly, lies in his total devotion to this administration and lack of ulterior political motives. But the Cheney-ites have come up with a response: Cheney, they argue, is the ideal candidate to safeguard Bush's legacy in 2009 and beyond.

The point remains delicate enough that the Draft Cheney movement must speak in coded terms, like members of the Comintern using Pravda to signal subtle shifts in the party line. I'm not a member of the conservative movement, but I do make a hobby of monitoring these communiques.

Here's my interpretation: The major impediment to a Cheney candidacy does not seem to be Cheney's interest in the job. Here is how Lindberg put it: "If there were no realistic possibility of the vice president going along, the person I was sitting next to at dinner the other day would surely have taken my mention of the Barnes article as occasion to knock the idea down. That didn't happen. On the contrary."

Indeed, the columns hyping Cheney read like a thinly disguised plea for Bush's support. "If the president let it be known he thinks Cheney would be the best person to succeed him," writes Barnes, "that would be enough to release Cheney from his promise not to run." As Lindberg writes, "Mr. Bush has the power to solve the problem unilaterally — by telling Mr. Cheney that it is in Mr. Bush's interest for the vice president to succeed him." Nudge nudge, wink wink.

If you think it's silly to put so much weight on a close textual analysis of conservative punditry, bear in mind that this is how conservatives chose George W. Bush as their 2000 nominee. It may have seemed to the outside world that we all woke up one day, long before the first Republican primary, to discover that the entire GOP establishment had coalesced all at once around Bush. In fact, Bush's anointing resulted from just the sort of subterranean machinations that we're seeing today.

The main difference is that eight years ago conservatives were looking for an amiable front man and today they're looking for ideological reliability. Cheney's supporters fear a repeat of the George H.W. Bush administration, in which, they believe, an ideologically fainthearted successor betrayed the purity of the Reagan revolution. Cheney obviously presents a low risk of ideological deviation. As Barnes delicately puts it, Cheney "helped Bush formulate" his agenda.

There's actually something refreshing and even noble about the desire to nominate Cheney. Critics of this administration, like me, tend to believe that Bush owes a great deal of his political support to his personality. In public Bush comes off as folksy, droppin' his g's and fixin' to clear brush at the old ranch. Though this persona strikes me as obviously fake, it strikes most Americans as genuine and wholesome. If he didn't have this regular-guy image, Bush could never get away with policies uniformly tilted toward the rich and the business lobby. That's exactly why Republicans picked Bush in the first place.

Now that Bush has won reelection, though, conservatives seem to have convinced themselves that Bush won because of — not despite — his policies. Perhaps they said it so often in the hope of creating a mandate that they came to believe it. In any case, they seem prepared to nominate a man who comes across more as an investment banker than a cowboy. I don't think it's a smart idea, but I admire their ideological forthrightness.