'Uncle Dick' Redux: Out of Office, Will Cheney Be GOP's Truman?

“It’s incredible.  The Republicans seem to have found a leader in Cheney, but he cannot lead them.”

That memorable line about Dick Cheney came to me at lunch yesterday with a European diplomat.  Like a lot of folks in Washington, we were discussing the former vice president’s week-old mano a mano clash with President Obama over enhanced interrogation techniques the week before.  Pundits — some of them grudgingly — said that Cheney came in ahead of Obama with his spirited defense of the Bush Administration’s handling of captured terrorists. 

Most significantly, the vice president who left office in January one of the most reviled figures of the Bush Administration is seeing his approval ratings rise.  According to a just-completed CNN poll, 37% of voters nationwide view Cheney positively (up eight percentage points from the same survey taken before his televised address to the American Enterprise Institute.

At 69 and after a history of heart disorder, Cheney is not going to run for office again.  My friend from Europe was correct:  he cannot lead the Republican Party.  But he is viewed as a leader by many and will be surely in demand as a speaker in the 2010 election cycle.

In many ways, the most accurate analogy to Cheney today is Harry Truman in 1953.  After many months of lying low and keeping quiet, the Missourian who left office a much-reviled and belittled President could not take it anymore.  After he was accused by officials in the Eisenhower Administration of being lax in letting security risks in key Administration slots, Truman went on national television to defend his record and hit back.  (Then-Attorney General Herbert Brownell even demanded and received equal time to respond to Truman).

There was no stopping him after that.  Democrats who shied away from Truman now asked him to hit the campaign trail.  He became a player in Democratic National Committee affairs, and was a fixture in campaigns throughout the 1950’s and early ‘60’s, with Democrats he helped ranging from Missouri Sen. Stuart Symington to playwright and 1960 New York U.S. House hopeful Gore Vidal.  

“I would be proud to appear with the vice president anywhere, anytime,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Tex.) told a press breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor on the same day as Cheney’s speech.  Although Politico found such embattled Republican senators as Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Richard Burr of North Carolina ducking the question of whether they wanted Cheney on the stump with them, the publication also found other Republican colleagues who would welcome the man from Wyoming:  Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, and John Thune of South Dakota.  Asked by Politico if he would want Cheney campaigning with him next year, freshman lawmaker Thune “let out a laugh and said ‘In South Dakota, yeah,’” the publication reported.

Perhaps the most intriguing reporting of an enthusiast for a stump appearance with Cheney is Marco Rubio, the conservative stalwart and former speaker of the state House who is locked in what is sure to be a rock ‘em-sock-em primary with moderate Gov. Charlie Crist for the Republican Senate nomination in Florida.  Rubio told Politico he would be happy to have Cheney campaign with him; Crist did not respond to requests from the publication for comment about Cheney’s role, or lack thereof, in his campaign.

Will Cheney intervene in a contested primary and stump for Rubio over Crist? I don’t know the answer to that one yet.  But I recall how in 1993-94, when there was talk of the defense secretary in the first Bush Administration running for President himself, Cheney was a hot property on the campaign trail and raised eyebrows for stumping in contested primaries.  He backed former State GOP Chairman Van Hipp for Congress in South Carolina (Hipp lost the nomination to present South Carolina  Gov. Mark Sanford), and more moderate candidates such as Virginia lieutenant governor hopeful Bobbie Kilgore and New York gubernatorial candidate Dick Rosenbaum (both of whom lost to more conservative nomination opponents).

Rather than rehash the wisdom of Cheney’s pre-primary involvement, I re-submit it to show that the man who was vice president is indeed someone who doesn’t shy away from intra-party fights — and will surely be out on the campaign trail next year.