Obama and the Cheney Option

Many of the candidates most frequently linked to Barack Obama’s running-mate search are presumably interested in the vice presidency for the leg up it provides for a future White House campaign. But some of the other names making the rounds suggest something quite different: the Dick Cheney model.

Mr. Cheney is only the second elected vice president since the end of World War II to pass on waging a campaign of his own for the top spot. And he’s the first to do so voluntarily: Spiro T. Agnew fully intended to run in 1976, but a no-contest plea in late 1973 to tax evasion and money laundering charges – related to bribes he took while serving as Maryland’s governor in the late ’60s – took him out of the picture.

Traditionally, running-mate decisions have amounted to marriages of expediency and ambition. The presidential nominee has needed to appeal to a particular state or region or to make peace with a particular wing of his party, and the vice presidential nominee has played along for the sake of his own political dreams. So it was, for instance, that Ronald Reagan reached a truce with the Republican Party’s Eastern establishment in the summer of 1980 by tapping George H. W. Bush. When the Reagan-Bush ticket was elected that fall, Mr. Bush’s own 1988 campaign began on the spot.

But the definition of the vice presidency has been evolving. Mr. Bush, when it came his turn to pick a running mate in 1988, went the traditional route and picked Dan Quayle, who was promptly relegated to a powerless perch within the administration. But Mr. Quayle was the last of his kind, at least for the time. Under Bill Clinton, Al Gore radically enhanced the visibility of his office, taking an active role in shaping policy behind the scenes and in selling it publicly – most famously with his nationally televised NAFTA debate with Ross Perot in 1993.

But Mr. Gore, like nearly all of his predecessors, was still primarily interested in his own political future, something that created obvious tension within the White House – and between the president and vice president personally – when Mr. Gore formally launched his 2000 campaign against the backdrop of the Lewinsky scandal.

Mr. Cheney has gone Mr. Gore one step further, combining an even more intense involvement in policymaking with staunch avowals from very early on that he had no interest in ever running for president himself. When he joined up with George W. Bush back in 2000, Mr. Cheney’s end of the deal were assurances of an expansive, hands-on role in a Bush administration (and, presumably, a hunch that Mr. Bush would be that rare leader willing to delegate so much real authority).

Say what you will about the policy implications, but it is an arrangement that has produced a remarkably cohesive White House, one in which Mr. Cheney has never flinched at the idea of paying a horrific political price for pursuing the administration’s agenda – in large part because it’s an agenda that Mr. Cheney has played a mighty, often decisive role in crafting.

When Mr. Obama makes his VP decision this year, he may simply opt for a more traditional choice. But it’s striking how many people have been linked to this process who, if elected to the vice presidency this year, would almost certainly be excluded from future presidential consideration.

Sam Nunn, for instance, will turn 70 years old in September. From a political standpoint, he may be exactly what Mr. Obama needs in a running mate: a seasoned, impeccably qualified and wholly reassuring figure – “gravitas” was the word most frequently used to describe the Cheney pick back in 2000 – with deep foreign-policy experience. That Mr. Nunn is from a Southern state doesn’t hurt, and that some on the left have begun carping about his conservative record on social issues like gay rights is actually a political plus, too – a chance for Mr. Obama to reach out to center-right swing voters who roll their eyes at the liberal interest-group establishment.

But Mr. Nunn, were he to be elected vice president, would never – barring some tragedy – become president. Like Mr. Cheney, he would need to be satisfied that his role in an Obama administration would be meaty, expansive and real.

The same goes for some other possible Obama picks. Joe Biden will turn 66 later this year. Bob Graham is already 71. George Mitchell and Lee Hamilton have both been mentioned, too: They’re well into their 70s. Even retired General James Jones, last week’s trendiest choice, would be 65 on Inauguration Day, and Tony McPeak, another military option, would be 73. Tom Daschle, who’s often talked up as a potential chief of staff, is also supposedly in the mix. He’s only 60 – or one year older than Mr. Cheney was in 2000.

History will judge the Bush-Cheney partnership a failure in part because Mr. Bush, who walked into office without so much as a clearly defined worldview, gave Mr. Cheney too much latitude. But the model itself is hardly irredeemable. Mr. Obama might like the idea of a vice president who’s focused only on the Obama administration – and not on the 2016 election.

skornacki@observer.com Obama and the Cheney Option