Vice President Dick Cheney is adamant about not running for president in 2008. Asked by host Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday if he might change his mind, Cheney answered with a firm no. "I've got my plans laid out," he said. "I'm going to serve this president for the next four years, and then I'm out of here... In 2009, I'll be 68 years old. And I've still got a lot of rivers I'd like to fish and time I'd like to spend with my grandkids, and so this is my last tour. I don't plan to run for anything."
And that wasn't all. Cheney said a primary reason he has influence with Bush is that he has pledged not to run. His ability to serve the president, he said, "depends upon my ability not to have any agenda other than his agenda. I made it clear when I took the job that I had no aspirations to run for president myself, that I wanted to be part of the team. And it's worked very effectively." If he were running, he'd have to worry now "about what the precinct committeeman in Ottumwa, Iowa, is going to think about me in January of '08." Since that's not the case, Cheney said, he's free to "offer my advice based on what's best from the standpoint of the president and his program and what we're trying to achieve now."
As professions of lack of interest in the presidency go, Cheney's is unusually strong. Yet there's every reason he should change his mind. He's not too old. President Reagan was 69 when he took office. Despite past heart trouble, Cheney hasn't had a serious health problem for years. Besides, his health has nothing to do with his refusal to consider running in 2008. He's an experienced candidate at the national level and an effective debater with a wry sense of humor.
But there's a larger reason Cheney should seek to succeed Bush. In all likelihood, the 2008 election, like last year's contest, will focus on foreign policy. The war on terror, national security, and the struggle for democracy will probably dominate American politics for a decade or more.
Bush's legacy, or at least part of it, will be to have returned these issues to a position of paramount concern for future presidents. And who is best qualified to pursue that agenda as knowledgeably and aggressively as Bush? The answer is the person who helped Bush formulate it, namely Cheney.
There's one other person who has been as important as the vice president in helping the president shape that agenda, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She could be an attractive candidate, but she has shown no interest in running for public office. Rice was once introduced to Arnold Schwarzenegger as "the next governor of California." She declined to run, however, and of course he got the job in 2003. Last year, Rice had the opportunity to run for the U.S. Senate from California. Again, she declined. If she decided to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, she would face the distinct disadvantage of being a first-time candidate.
What about John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Bill Frist, and other Republicans who are thinking about running? They don't come close to Cheney in foreign policy know-how or decision-making experience. That's not to denigrate them. McCain has emphasized foreign and military affairs in his Senate career and is an able spokesman for a Bush-style foreign policy. Giuliani is no slouch on the subject of the terrorist threat. But who would generate the most public confidence as commander in chief? Cheney, for sure. On domestic issues as well -- particularly taxes and energy -- he can match any of the likely Republican candidates.
The main rap I've heard on Cheney is that he lacks the charisma to get elected. This is nonsense. So what if he can be characterized as Bush without the pizzazz? Cheney has what's far more important -- gravitas. He's a man who's taken seriously as a national leader by everyone here and abroad. Voters aren't stupid. They know that gravitas trumps charisma in choosing a president in a foreign policy era.
The other question about Cheney as a presidential candidate is how he gets out of his vow not to run. That's easy. In the final two years of Bush's second term, the president will be a lame duck whose agenda has been exhausted. There will still be foreign policy issues on the table, true. But that will entail the playing out of policies that Bush, with Cheney's help, developed in his first term. So Bush will be in a position to anoint a successor. If the president let it be known he thinks Cheney would be the best person to succeed him, that would be enough to release Cheney from his promise not to run. And does anyone doubt that Bush thinks Cheney would be the best?
I don't know if Bush, two years from now, will actually want to choose a successor, someone to carry on his policies. It's possible his presidency and his signature issues may have soured by then. But I doubt it. So imagine Bush as a successful president looking to the future after he leaves office and wondering whether his accomplishments will be protected and expanded or reversed. It would be out of character for Bush to leave the selection of his successor to chance or to the whims of presidential primaries. If he says he'd like Cheney to run, my guess is Cheney would be hard-pressed to say no.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
By Fred Barnes