Entries from July 2000

The Republicans’ Cheney Moment

David Frum July 25th, 2000 at 12:00 am Comments Off

As
George W. Bush has led America to contemplate Richard B. Cheney as a vice
presidential nominee, he has sent two powerful messages to the country and his
party — one reassuring, one disturbing.

The
reassuring message: Mr. Bush is self-possessed and self-confident — unafraid
to campaign alongside a candidate of wider and greater experience. It’s the
very opposite of the decision his father made in 1988 when he selected Dan
Quayle, whom no one considered his equal, as his running mate.

But
there is a disturbing message, too, at least for Republicans. And no, it’s not
just a warning to county fairs across America that if they invite Mr. Cheney to
judge the local beauty contest, he might go home with a tiara on his head. The
disturbing message is that Governor Bush apparently feels he owes the
conservative wing of the Republican Party little.

It’s
not that Mr. Cheney is not a conservative man; of course he is. He’s much more
conservative than, say, Jack Kemp, Bob Dole’s choice in 1996. In many ways, he
would make an excellent national leader: calm, sound, seasoned, trustworthy.

Yet
if Mr. Cheney is conservative, he’s not "a conservative"; he’s not
someone whom the right wing of the Republican Party recognizes as one of its
own, the way it recognized Mr. Kemp in 1996, or Mr. Quayle in 1992 and 1988, or
Ronald Reagan in 1984 and 1980, or (odd as it may be to remember) Bob Dole back
in 1976. This nonrecognition may be arbitrary, but political affinities are
seldom entirely rational.

The
choice of Mr. Cheney offers a Bush-Bushie ticket, one that declares the Reagan
chapter of the Republican Party’s history not merely completed, but closed.
This might seem an audacious maneuver in a party whose congressmen occupy their
idle hours renaming airports and highways after Mr. Reagan. But it’s not as
audacious as it seems.

In
their quieter way, the Reaganites within the party have, since 1996, taken a
tumble every bit as painful and embarrassing as that which toppled the last New
Deal Democrats in the mid-1980′s. The outmaneuvering of Newt Gingrich by Bill
Clinton in 1995, Jack Kemp’s debate debacle against Al Gore in 1996, the
electoral reverses of 1998 — fairly or not, all have together discredited the
wing of the Republican Party that considered itself the inheritor of the Reagan
legacy.

That
wing knew it was discredited. Through the spring, summer and fall of 1999,
one-time Reagan Republicans made the pilgrimage to Austin, Tex. They flew back
charmed, convinced that the popular governor was just as committed as they were
to tax cuts, school choice, the defense of the traditional family and
color-blind civil-rights laws.

Others,
more skeptical, might acknowledge that the governor was not as staunch as he
might be on this or that conservative shibboleth but (they whispered) even if
he wasn’t good on everything, he could still be counted on to name the right
kind of judges. When asked how they could feel so sure that the governor would
deliver the judiciary, given that his father named David Souter to the Supreme
Court, the bitterest Republican judicial disappointment since William Brennan,
they would smile the quietly satisfied smile of those in the know.

And
so the Reaganite right gathered itself to Mr. Bush. It spurned Steve Forbes,
ignored Dan Quayle and recoiled from John McCain. It committed itself early,
just as labor signed up early with Bill Clinton in 1992, and without haggling
too long or too hard over the specifics of the quo it could expect in return
for its quid.

But
there’s an old rule in politics: The people who make up their minds last count
the most. That’s why politicians worry more about female voters than they do
about men, more about young voters than they do about the old, more about the
middle class than about the poor or the well-to-do. Having pledged themselves
to Mr. Bush so hastily and so unreservedly, Reaganite conservatives now find
themselves in no position to extract things from him. He may, for reasons of
his own, take a Reaganite line on issues like national missile defense. But if,
for other reasons of his own, he should take a non-Reaganite line on abortion
or federal spending or affirmative action, the old Reaganites will not find it
easy to prevent him.

There’s
no point in grumbling about this. The present weakness of the Reagan wing of
the party is no dirty trick; it is the price that must be paid for its recent
mistakes and defeats. But it is always better to pay such a price knowingly:
conservative Republicans would judge Mr. Bush more accurately and probably, in
the end, more charitably if they understood from the beginning how little they
counted with him and why.

Offering
Republicans Mr. Cheney only drives home that message. And in that sense,
perhaps after all it is good news all around.