Democrats have mounted a major assault on Vice President Dick Cheney, describing the vice president as a guy who is long on graft and soft on national security. Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe commenced hostilities with a “major” speech on Monday, and Democratic operatives — augmented by “independent” advertisers, such as MoveOn.org — now are supplying the echo chamber.
The Cheney-bash actually is the second part of a one-two punch: John Kerry took a swat at President Bush on a Monday morning TV show, accusing the president of providing an inadequate account of his days as a National Guard pilot. You get the idea — John Kerry faced hostile fire, and George W. Bush zipped gleefully about in an F-102. This isn’t exactly a new line of assault. In fact, it has converted the Democratic standard-bearer into a mouthpiece for movie producer Michael Moore.
This is political suicide because it highlights the weaknesses of John Kerry in a manner guaranteed to generate sympathy for the president. Start with the assault on Dick Cheney. Since when have voters placed a great deal of stock in the man who occupies the number two slot in any administration? Vice presidents serve an important constitutional function, but even the most important of them — and Cheney clearly seems the most significant in U.S. history — play secondary roles, and are doomed to living deep in their bosses’ shadows.
Al Gore, for instance, was comic relief during the age of Clinton — a wooden cutout placed beside the all-too-human commander in chief. Dan Quayle in Bush I was reduced to the role of punch line, a fate that dogs him to this day. Dick Cheney combines Gore’s excitement with the competence of a Radar O’Reilly. He seems to be the administration’s default go-to guy because he has, during a long and distinguished career in Washington, mastered the baroque byways of this national capital. But unlike Vice Presidents Mondale, George Herbert Walker Bush, Quayle, and Gore, he harbors no ambition of vaulting into the Oval Office. He’s here to serve George W. Bush, and when the president rides off into the sunset, so will Cheney.
This makes the attack all the more mystifying. What is the point? Do Democratic strategists really believe Cheney will bring the president to ruin? Not even Spiro Agnew could bring down Richard Nixon! Nor are voters likely to lap up a series of dark conspiracy theories centered around the Halliburton Company, for which Cheney served as chief executive between the Bush administrations. One can only conclude that Democrats have decided to whack Dick Cheney because they have had so little success in wounding George W. Bush.
Which brings us to Kerry’s assault on the president. Senator Kerry, frustrated by a series of tough questions regarding his military record, and his later career as the King of Vietnam Protesters, has decided to blame recent bad publicity on the president and members of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. But Republicans didn’t raise questions about the disposition of John Kerry’s Vietnam medals and ribbons. ABC television and the Boston Globe — neither one a right-wing outlet — posed those challenges. The real problem for Senator Kerry is that his positions on key issues ricochet like stray bullets. He has become a drive-by candidate whose chief victims are fellow Democrats.
That’s true of this latest foray into political combat. Polls indicate that attacks on the president are backfiring. In fact, the president’s slim lead over the senator seems to widen by the day. So rather than lashing out about George W. Bush’s National Guard record, Senator Kerry might want to practice some quiet introspection: Bury the anger; count to ten; and resolve to find some positions on major issues and stick with them. That, and not catty remarks about whose service was nobler than whose, might prevent his candidacy from sinking into the abyss.