Despite Appearances, Is President Bush Planning an “August Surprise?”

Originally posted: July 30, 2004

Greencastle, Ind. – While the Democrats gathered in Boston, apparently dispensing Prozac at the podium to assure no speaker drifted “off message” and get too negative about President Bush, Karl Rove has taken the opposite tack. He unleashed Dick Cheney.

To keep the GOP in the news while the president rests at his ranch, Cheney spent four days this week touring the West, doing his vice presidential duties, bashing the Kerry-Edwards ticket. This is his second foray, following a swing-states bus tour of the Midwest.

Feeding red meat to Republican rallies, the vice president says John Kerry’s votes against bans on late-term abortions and flag burning and support for gun controls place him “out of touch, outside the mainstream of conservative values.” John Edwards, he says, lacks the experience to be president, and his connections to trial lawyers assure that tort reform will never be a reality. The Democratic ticket, says Cheney, would tremble in the face of terrorism.

Cheney personifies the fading legitimacy of the Bush administration’s case for attacking Iraq. Part of the Cheney stump attack is this: “Terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength, they are invited by the perception of weakness.” Listeners who pause to think might ask themselves: “If so, how does it happen that they hit the World Trade Center on the Bush-Cheney watch?”

Another rationale for the Cheney tour is to tamp down speculation that he has become an untenable political liability for the GOP. Both Cheney and President Bush have gone out of their way recently to guarantee that the GOP team will remain intact. The certainty that Cheney’s health will not permit him to seek the presidency in 2008 — clearing the way for a Jeb Bush run — has been a solid source of job security.

Still, the ghost in the FleetCenter has been Dick Cheney. National conventions are great gatherings of poll readers, and the Democrats in Boston know that national polls show Cheney to be a drag on the ticket. A CBS-New York Times poll last month showed Cheney with an approval rating of 22 percent, among Republicans only 48 percent. Americans are suffering a steady erosion of confidence that the course of events in Iraq is going well, and Cheney remains the chief cheerleader for that war.

Thus, the chorus of assurances that Cheney’s place on the ticket is safe must be taken with a grain of salt.

In 1992, as GOP poll numbers sagged, the senior Bush was warned by Jim Baker that Dan Quayle was a drag on the ticket. Find a way to dump him, Baker advised. Bush stood loyally with Quayle and the two went down together.

There are plenty of Republicans who believe Bush could strengthen the ticket with a fresh face in second place. But there is no one of Baker’s stature in the administration to make the case. Who would actually have the president’s ear to convince him? The answer: his father. Bush senior counseled picking Cheney four years ago to add experience and gravitas to the ticket. Now, grown more pragmatic with experience, the elder Bush would prefer that his son not repeat the ignominy of his own one-term presidency.

Thus, among Democrats there remains anticipation of an August surprise. Cheney has finally fired his longtime doctor for failing to overcome an addiction to painkillers. So, the way the Ouiji boards in Boston have it, Cheney goes in for a fresh medical check-up and learns that a rough campaign and a second term would be harmful to his health. Regrettably, he tells the president, the party must select someone else.

And who might that someone else be? Former GOP Sen. Alfonse D’Amato recently suggested either Colin Powell or John McCain. Neither is likely. Each has said he does not want the job, and neither has a particularly warm relationship with Bush.

A far more interesting choice would be former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, chair of the 9/11 commission, whose stature today is as high as any politician in America. Kean is an experienced campaigner with an excellent record for bipartisanship and a proven ability to attract black votes.

Sliding Cheney out the door and picking Kean would provide the administration reason and cause to remodel its stance on national security. It might also assure George W. Bush a second term.

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