The Magazine

The Conservative Case for Cheney

From the July 26, 2004 issue: And why he won't be dumped.

Jul 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 43 • By JEFFREY BELL and STEPHEN MOORE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

DUMP DICK CHENEY? It won't happen, and if it did, it would be a terrible idea. The president would be losing his most intelligent and experienced adviser. And conservatives would be losing one of our most consistent and effective champions, at home and abroad.

The 63-year-old Cheney became White House chief of staff to President Gerald Ford 29 years ago. In 1988, when he was 47, he was elected House Minority Whip, only to accept appointment early the following year as Secretary of Defense.

In virtually every one of this remarkable succession of roles, Cheney has been on the right flank of his milieu. As Ford's deputy chief of staff, he was listening to obscure supply-siders like USC professor Arthur Laffer and was one of a minority of Ford advisers who fruitlessly pushed tax-rate reduction. (When Laffer drew his famous curve on the dinner napkin, Cheney, along with chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld, was the audience.) In the House leadership of the 1980s, Cheney was the most relentless and best-informed advocate of the Reagan military buildup that helped win the Cold War. Under Bush I, he was the only member of the administration's top policy team who quietly disagreed with the decision to end the ground war after 100 hours and thus leave Saddam Hussein in power.

Within this Bush administration, Cheney has been a strong internal advocate for the most radical parts of the supply-side agenda, including the phaseout of the death tax and the two-thirds reduction in the personal income tax on dividends. These have been among the biggest surprises of the last four years, and could never have happened without a president whose own reformist inclinations turned out to be far more radically conservative than even most conservatives thought. But with a secretary of the treasury, Paul O'Neill, who was actively opposed to the tax-cut agenda, economic conservatives are lucky to have had Cheney's credible and forceful internal advocacy of what has proven to be a remarkably ambitious tax-cut agenda.

On the war on terrorism, Cheney has from the beginning favored a forward strategy, putting him in frequent conflict with Secretary of State Colin Powell. Believing the decision to leave Saddam in power in 1991 to have been a fateful mistake, Cheney and his allies moved heaven and earth to make sure the mistake was not repeated. For this, the left and elements of the isolationist right will never forgive him. But try to picture a continuation of the "legalistic" strategy pursued by the previous administration. In those circumstances, would the nation have gone nearly three years without a new attack on our homeland? Would Libya have turned over its weapons secrets? Would Pakistan and perhaps even Saudi Arabia be showing signs of anti-Islamist realignment?

Even apart from 9/11, Bush has been more of a foreign-policy conservative than expected. Conservatives for untold years raged against the obsolete 1972 ABM treaty with the Soviet Union that inhibited missile defense, even though the Soviet Union no longer exists. Bush (with a heads-up to Vladimir Putin) not only abrogated the treaty but ordered deployment (not "study") of U.S. missile defense. How likely would so hawkish an outcome have been in a simple clash of Rumsfeld vs. Powell? Was sophisticated, well-informed former Pentagon chief Cheney the only credible tie-breaker on this issue? We may never know.

One of the reasons we may never know is that Cheney is completely loyal to the president, and never leaks self-serving spin on his own role. As in his earlier executive jobs, he is a team player who defends decisions that he may have argued against in the privacy of the White House. In part because he has no intention of running for president, but also because he has always been loyal and self-effacing, he doesn't rush to defend himself even when being demonized by the media or the Democrats.

Given the utter lack of a "P.R." strategy, it is all the more remarkable that a new Gallup poll on Cheney's standing concludes that the relentless media story line of Cheney as a "polarizing" figure who is a "drag" on Bush is a myth. Cheney's negatives have gone up in a time of trial for the administration, but no more than have Bush's. According to Gallup's Frank Newport, Bush and Cheney are equally "polarizing"--or, perhaps more accurately, regarded similarly by a polarized electorate. Bush is rated favorably by 92 percent of Republicans, but unfavorably by 79 percent of Democrats. Cheney is seen favorably by 81 percent of Republicans, and unfavorably by 68 percent of Democrats. The main difference, according to Newport, is due to the fact that 12 percent of voters still say they don't yet know enough about Cheney to have an opinion, while only 2 percent say they don't yet know enough about Bush.

But at a time when at least some voters have heard about Cheney's having a profane exchange with Vermont senator Pat Leahy, could dumping sentiment be up, relative to earlier soundings? Gallup asked a year ago if Cheney should be retained on the ticket, and again last October, and a third time last week. The number has gone from 51 percent (last July) to 53 percent (October) to 59 percent (last week). Cheney is rated very favorably by Republicans (81-12 positive, 70 percent pro-retention), but a majority of independents and even of Democrats now believe he should be retained.

He will be. In the campaign he will argue the conservative case for Bush-Cheney, and his credibility and experience will dwarf that of a Democratic ticket whose combined executive experience comprises Kerry's five years as an assistant prosecutor and two years as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. In the words of George W. Bush, Cheney "can be president."

Stephen Moore is president of the Club for Growth and Jeffrey Bell is a principal of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm.