“Cheney for President” is the headline today over the first column by the New York Times’s newest op-ed regular, Ross Douthat — a delightful debut suggesting that, as Mr. Douthat puts it, “both the Republican Party and the country would be better off today if Cheney, rather than John McCain, had been a candidate for president in 2008.”
Well, the left laughed, along with a number of Republicans, when The New York Sun suggested exactly that — more than two years before the Times. “Cheney’s Chance” was the headline over a New York Sun editorial that was issued on April 4, 2007 and argued for all the talk about Mayor Bloomberg, Vice President Gore, Senator Thompson and Speaker Gingrich, the one “who who would bring the most to the race is Vice President Cheney.”
Said the Sun: “In previous recent campaigns, when there was an outgoing president who had won a second term, there has been a vice president around on the campaign trail to defend the record of the administration. George H.W. Bush promised to be kinder and gentler than Reagan, but he was still essentially defending the Reagan record. Vice President Gore didn't campaign much with President Clinton in 2000, but he was running in part on the record of the Clinton-Gore administration.”
The Sun’s editorial went on to note that in the 2008 race, the leading Republican candidates included Senator McCain, who was Mr. Bush’s rival in the bitter 2000 primary contest and who voted against some of Mr. Bush’s tax cuts, and Mayor Giuliani, who was “proclaiming, in what seems a rebuke of George W. Bush, ‘it’s time now that we have a president that knows how to get things done.’” Said the Sun: “Were Mr. Cheney in the race, it's hard to imagine that the president's approval ratings would not be five or 10 points higher. The reason is that the administration would have a defender on the campaign trail as part of the public debate.”
Now comes Mr. Douthat, with a column that says: “Watching Dick Cheney defend the Bush administration’s interrogation policies, it’s been hard to escape the impression that both the Republican Party and the country would be better off today if Cheney, rather than John McCain, had been a candidate for president in 2008.”
“Imagine for a moment that he’d had that chance,” Mr. Douthat’s column suggests. “Imagine that he’d damned the poll numbers, broken his oft-repeated pledge that he had no presidential ambitions of his own, and shouldered his way into the race. Imagine that Republican primary voters, more favorably disposed than most Americans to Cheney and the administration he served, had rewarded him with the nomination.”
What the Sun pointed out two years ago was that “Mr. Cheney has virtues as a candidate in his own right. He has foreign policy experience by virtue of having served as defense secretary, and he has economic policy experience, having served as a leading tax-cutter while a member of the House of Representatives.” His wife, Lynne, the editorial noted, “would make one of the greatest First Ladies in history.” It pointed out that Mr. Cheney, were he to win, would be more than four years younger than Mr. McCain.
The Sun noted that the columnist Lawrence Kudlow had already written a column saying he hoped President Bush asked Vice President Cheney to run for president in 2008. The Sun added that should Mr. Cheney seek the nomination his stature “would put him instantly into the first rank of contenders on the Republican side.” And it quoted a recent speech in which Mr. Cheney said: “We serve a cause that is right, and a cause that gives hope to the oppressed in every corner of this earth. We’re the kind of country that fights for freedom, and the men and women in that fight are some of the bravest citizens this nation has ever produced. The only way for us to lose is to quit.”
In today’s Times, Mr. Douthat writes that “[a]s a candidate, Cheney would have doubtless been as disciplined and ideologically consistent as McCain was feckless. In debates with Barack Obama, he would have been as cuttingly effective as he was in his encounters with Joe Lieberman and John Edwards in 2000 and 2004 respectively.” The Times columnist isn’t necessarily endorsing Mr. Cheney on substance, predicting he would have lost, with the result that the “conservative movement might — might! —have been jolted into the kind of rethinking that’s necessary if it hopes to regain power.” Reasons he: “If a Cheney defeat could have been good for the Republican Party; a Cheney campaign could have been good for the country.”
But he suggests the former vice president’s attacks on President Obama are “part of an argument about the means and ends of our interrogation policy that should have happened during the general election and didn’t – because McCain wasn’t a supporter of the Bush-era approach, and Obama didn’t see a percentage in harping on the topic.” Today, he suggests, Mr. Cheney, “prodded by the ironies of history into demanding greater disclosure about programs he once sought to keep completely secret, has an important role to play. . . . But better if this debate had happened during the campaign season. And better, perhaps, if Cheney himself had been there to have it out.”
Our own view is that Mr. Cheney just might have beaten Mr. Obama, particularly if he had broken with Mr. Bush on the bailout of the banks and the seizure of AIG and Fannie Mae, actions that both Messrs. McCain and Obama backed. But all these are would haves and could haves at this point, and what the country, and the Republicans, sorely need at this point is not nostalgia for Mr. Cheney but the emergence of a new generation of leaders that will make the case for a strong national defense and a modest government that respects property rights and the rule of law.