Ross Douthat argues the position more tentatively than I would.
Watching Dick Cheney defend the Bush administrationâ€™s interrogation policies, itâ€™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.
Certainly Cheney himself seems to feel that way. Last weekâ€™s Sean Hannity interview, all anti-Obama jabs and roundhouses, was the latest installment in the vice presidentâ€™s unexpected â€“ and, to Republican politicians, distinctly unwelcome â€“ transformation from election-season wallflower into high-profile spokesman for the conservative opposition. George W. Bush seems happy to be back in civilian life, but Cheney has taken the fight to the Obama White House like a man who wouldnâ€™t have minded campaigning for a third Bush-Cheney term.
Imagine for a moment that heâ€™d had that chance. Imagine that heâ€™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.
At the very least, a Cheney-Obama contest would have clarified conservatismâ€™s present political predicament. In the wake of two straight drubbings at the polls, much of the American right has comforted itself with the idea that conservatives lost the country primarily because the Bush-era Republican Party spent too much money on social programs. And John McCainâ€™s defeat has been taken as the vindication of this premise.
We tried running the maverick reformer, the argument goes, and look what it got us. What Americans want is real conservatism, not some crypto-liberal imitation.
â€œReal conservatism,â€ in this narrative, means a particular strain of right-wingery: a conservatism of supply-side economics and stress positions, uninterested in social policy and dismissive of libertarian qualms about the national-security state. And Dick Cheney happens to be its diamond-hard distillation. The former vice-president kept his distance from the Bush administrationâ€™s attempts at domestic reform, and he had little time for the idealistic, religiously infused side of his bossâ€™s policy agenda. He was for tax cuts at home and pre-emptive warfare overseas; anything else he seemed to disdain as sentimentalism.
This is precisely the sort of conservatism thatâ€™s ascendant in todayâ€™s much-reduced Republican Party, from the talk radio dials to the partyâ€™s grassroots. And a Cheney-for-President campaign would have been an instructive test of its political viability.
I think Douthat is mistaken in supposing that Dick Cheney is unlibertarian or that, because he’s been willing to defend roughing up the three most prominent captured Al Qaeda conspirators to save LA, that Dick Cheney is wedded to a “national security state.”
Even smart and reasonably conservative members of the national commentariat too frequently check their skepticism at the door and buy into the river of BS discharging from the polluted streams of the establishment media. That alleged “national security state” amounted to some unnecessary navel-gazing memos and essentially the continuation of exactly the very same data-mining practices which the federal government began carrying on under Bill Clinton and the same covert scrutiny of overseas correspondence that went on under every other president since the 1940s.
Personally, I suspect that, given a chance, Cheney would prove more conservative about foreign commitments and a lot less Wilsonian than George W. Bush.
It’s true that Dick Cheney, in the manner of all dangerously competent and articulate national conservative figures, has been on the receiving end of the MSM’s scorched earth policy, which has systematically portrayed him as the living equivalent of Darth Vader. In reality, Dick Cheney is a salt-of-the-earth hometown American guy, just an exceptionally bright example of the genre. Real acquaintance would make Americans recognize Dick Cheney as the super-competent downtown businessman, the guy who runs the annual barbecue in his capacity as head of the local Rotary, the avuncular man of affairs you turn to when you need advice on complicated financial matters.
I think Ross Douthat is right in believing that we’d have had the odds overwhelmingly against us running Cheney last Fall, and maybe we would still have lost, but in that case we’d have been better off for fighting the good fight, and we’d have proud of having supported a worthy candidate instead depressed over being associated with a dufus like McCain.