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No Manchurian candidates 

The time has come for every columnist worth his or her salt to help John McCain and Barack Obama choose their vice presidential running mates, either by name or by identifying the factors that should guide their choices.

This is the only one that will count.

The choices should be, respectively: any constitutionally qualified subject of the realm who is not Dick Cheney.

Vice presidents and nominees for the job typically have made no important difference either in the election or ultimately in the service of the country. All that you want is that the running mate not be a distraction, like Danny Quayle in 1988 and beyond.

Only three times in the past century has the choice changed things in a historically significant way. Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy picked unpromising political hacks who would prove to be uncannily great leaders when death propelled them into the presidency.

The third example is Dick Cheney.

“Anybody but Cheney” in 2008 can be taken symbolically as well as literally. Obama and McCain should not pick people who given the chance would take the country in exactly the opposite direction the people want it to go and that the candidate promised it would go.

Sen. Obama, because he is so poorly known, arouses irrational fears among the ignorant that he is a sleeper agent who would make the United States a Muslim nation.

The United States actually has had one Manchurian candidate. He was either George W. Bush or Dick Cheney. Historians will have to resolve which it was, whether Bush intended to be the reckless president he has been or whether Cheney made him do it. The evidence, from books and other confessions by disillusioned insiders, is piling up. It was Cheney.

Most recently it was “Against the Tide” by Lincoln Chafee, a memoir by the moderate one-term Republican senator from Rhode Island that castigates Congress, and especially spineless Democrats, for enabling the most foolish president in history. He singles out Sen. Hillary Clinton, who voted to authorize Bush's invasion of Iraq, Chafee having cast the only Republican vote in the Senate against it. That could be sour grapes. Clinton went to Rhode Island to campaign against Chafee in 2006, when Rep. Sheldon Whitehouse beat him.

Chafee tells the story of his ardor for Bush in 2000. He admired Bush Sr., the careful centrist.  George W. seemed a little doltish but the experienced Cheney would steady him.

Bush's backers had arranged for Cheney, the head of Halliburton and a former Wyoming congressman and seasoned White House adviser, to lead a committee to choose a running mate. Cheney narrowed the field to a handful, topped by Missouri's moderate John Danforth, but let Bush know that none of them really fit the bill. Cheney adroitly changed his own voting residence from Texas to Wyoming to overcome a constitutional disqualification and, lo, Bush picked him.

Chafee recounts that Sen. Arlen Specter had arranged for Cheney to lunch with five moderate Republican senators on Dec. 13, 2000. The night before, the U.S. Supreme Court by a vote of 5 to 4 had stopped the Florida recount and declared Bush president. So he would take power on the strength of one electoral vote and one Supreme Court justice with the Senate split 50-50. But Chafee believed Bush would be the centrist, the uniter not a divider that he said he was. Bush had said he would adopt a humble foreign policy because the world would resent an arrogant America. He promised no “nation building.”

The meeting with Cheney would change that.

“In steady, quiet tones,” Chafee wrote, “the Vice President-elect laid out a shockingly divisive political agenda for the new Bush administration, glossing over nearly every pledge the Republican ticket had made to the American voter. President-elect Bush had promised that healing, but now we . . .  were hearing Richard Cheney articulate the real agenda: A clashist approach on every issue, big and small, and any attempt at consensus would be a sign of weakness. We would seek confrontation on every front. He said nothing about education or the environment or health care; it was all about these new issues that were rarely, if ever, touted in the campaign. The new administration would divide Americans into red and blue, and divide nations into those who stand with us or against us. I knew that what the Vice President-elect was saying would rip the closely divided Congress apart.”

Was that Bush's intent all along? The evidence mounts that it wasn't. He really was just the agreeable, likable chucklehead that he always seemed to be. A cabinet member would recall that when Cheney laid out a third round of tax cuts for the rich at a private session early in 2003 Bush meekly protested that he thought they had already taken care of the upper class in the 2001 tax cut. Cheney was firm and Bush capitulated. It was the same with Iraq and all the rest, except for negotiating with North Korea and the firing of Don Rumsfeld. Bush's singular personal contribution to the administration, a remarkable one, was to install incompetence across the whole breadth of government. Direction was Cheney's prerogative.

Here is the good news. Obama will be stronger than the mate he chooses except in the unlikely scenario it's Hillary. If you take the worst-case scenario and John McCain is elected you can be pretty sure that he will be his own man. You may think that is bad enough, but rest better knowing that there will be no reprise of Dick Cheney.

 

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