The Dick Cheney shooting incident will, in a way, go away. And, in a way, not—ever. Some things stick. Gerry Ford had physically stumbled only once or twice in public when he became, officially, The Stumbler. Mr. Ford’s stumbles seemed to underscore a certain lack of sure-footedness in his early policies and other decisions. The same with Jimmy Carter and the Killer Rabbit. At the time Mr. Carter told the story of a wild rabbit attacking his boat he had already come to be seen by half the country as weak and unlucky. Even bunnies took him on.
Same with Dick Cheney. He’s been painted as the dark force of the administration, and now there’s a mental picture to go with the reputation. Pull! Sorry, Harry! Pull!
Can media bias be detected in the endless coverage? Sure, always. But it’s also a great story. A vice president of the United States shot a guy in a hunting accident, and no one on his staff told the press. That’s a story.
But as a scandal I’m not sure it has a big future. The vice president yesterday offered the facts as he observed and experienced them. “I’m the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry” is a pretty direct statement. His recounting of the decision on how to handle it in the press seemed to reflect only incompetence, not malevolence.
Right now in the White House they’re discussing how to help the vice president get through his problem. They’ve already tried the wearing of orange ties, an attempt to take the sting out of the incident by showing they don’t feel the sting. Duck! Ha ha!
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But what are they thinking that they’re not saying? Here’s a hunch, based not on any inside knowledge but only on what I know of people who practice politics, and those who practice it within the Bush White House.
I suspect what they’re thinking and not saying is, If Dick Cheney weren’t vice president, who’d be a good vice president? They’re thinking, At some time down the road we may wind up thinking about a new plan. And one night over drinks at a barbecue in McLean one top guy will turn to another top guy and say, “Under the never permeable and never porous Dome of Silence, tell me . . . wouldn’t you like to replace Cheney?”
Why would they be thinking about this? It’s not the shooting incident itself, it’s that Dick Cheney has been the administration’s hate magnet for five years now. Halliburton, energy meetings, Libby, Plamegate. This was not all bad for the White House: Mr. Cheney took the heat that would otherwise have been turned solely on George Bush. So he had utility, and he’s experienced and talented and organized, and Mr. Bush admires and respects him. But, at a certain point a hate magnet can draw so much hate you don’t want to hold it in your hand anymore, you want to drop it, and pick up something else. Is this fair? Nah. But fair has nothing to do with it.
This is a White House that likes to hit refresh when the screen freezes. Right now the screen is stuck, with poll numbers in the low 40s, or high 30s.
The key thing is Iraq. George Bush cares deeply about Iraq and knows his legacy will be decided there. It has surely dawned on the White House that “Iraq” will not be “over” in the next two years. Iraq is a long story. What Dick Armitage or Colin Powell said about the Pottery Barn rule was true: If you break, it you own it, at the very least for the next few years.
George Bush, and so the men and women around him, will want the next Republican presidential nominee to continue the U.S. effort in, and commitment to, Iraq. To be a candidate who will continue his policy, and not pull the plug, and burrow through.
This person will not be Dick Cheney, who has already said he doesn’t plan to run. So Mr. Bush may feel in time that he has reason to want to put in a new vice president in order to pick a successor who’ll presumably have an edge in the primaries—he’s the sitting vice president, and Republicans still respect primogeniture. They will tend to make the common-sense assumption that a guy who’s been vice president for, say, a year and a half, is a guy who already knows the top job. Anyway, the new guy will get a honeymoon, which means he won’t be fully hated by the time the 2008 primaries begin.
This new vice president would, however, have to be very popular in the party, or the party wouldn’t buy it. Replacing Mr. Cheney would be chancy. The new veep would have to get through the Senate, which has at this point at least three likely contenders for the nomination, at least two of whom who would not, presumably, be amused.
Plus there’s more quiet anti-administration feeling in the party than is generally acknowledged, and the president’s men know it. A lot of people would find such a move too cute by half. The contenders already in line—and their supporters, donors, fans, staff and friends in the press—would resent it. Big time.
People wouldn’t like it . . . unless they liked it. How could they be persuaded to like it?
It would have to be a man wildly popular in the party and the press. And it would have to be a decision made by Dick Cheney. If he didn’t want to do it he wouldn’t have to. If he were pressed—Dick, we gotta put the next guy in here or we’re going to lose in ‘08 and see all our efforts undone—he might make the decision himself. He’d have to step down on his own. He’s just been through a trauma, and he can’t be liking his job as much now as he did three years ago. No one on the downside of a second term does, hate magnet or not.
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Of course, all this is exactly like the sort of thing people blue-skied about in 1992, when George H.W. Bush was in trouble and a lot of people urged him to hit refresh by dumping Dan Quayle. He didn’t. George W. Bush loves to do what his father didn’t.
Who would it be? Someone who’s a strong supporter of Iraq, and, presumably, the Bush doctrine.
Who would that be? That’s what I suspect the president’s men are asking themselves. But silently.