Cheney's special GOP role

September 03, 2004|By Jules Witcover

NEW YORK - Seldom if ever has a vice president been afforded the convention spotlight that Dick Cheney enjoyed here the other night in his dual role as the Republican Party's chief exponent of its conservative values and Democrat-basher.

His appearance as cleanup hitter provided an ideological counter to the convention's earlier pointed effort, employing speakers such as John McCain, Rudolph Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger to show a more middle-road face to undecided voters.

The convention prominence given to Mr. Cheney was one not assigned to earlier Republican running mates, going back even to Richard Nixon in 1952. It was a recognition of how this loyal foot soldier in the party's ranks has risen to be regarded as guardian of its neoconservative soul.

The vice presidency itself in the Bush administration has been elevated to the point that Mr. Cheney is regarded as the president's most influential policy adviser and is revered on the GOP right as its strongest, if well-modulated, voice.

A vice president's prime campaign task traditionally has been to go forcefully on the attack against the opposition, but more often on the campaign stump in byways not considered politically important enough to warrant a presidential nominee visit. Here in New York, Mr. Cheney handled the job front and center before a nationwide television audience.

Mr. Cheney delivered an indictment of Democratic nominee John Kerry that in his wooden and unemotional speaking style seemed somehow to lend more gravity to his charges of inconsistency and confusion. Never shouting, he used ridicule instead of bombast.

"On Iraq," he said in a rare convention reference to Mr. Bush's Achilles heel, "Senator Kerry has disagreed with many of his fellow Democrats, but Senator Kerry's liveliest disagreement is with himself. Senator Kerry says he sees two Americas. It makes the whole thing mutual. America sees two John Kerrys." Actually, the "two Americas" is Kerry running mate John Edwards' line.

By design or otherwise, Mr. Cheney's speech came after, and was in conspicuous contrast to, a savage assault against Mr. Kerry by Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, whose support of Mr. Bush earned him the unusual role as keynoter at a Republican convention. He pointedly linked Mr. Kerry with his Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, as birds of a feather, a putdown from a fellow Democrat guaranteed as none other to trigger GOP guffaws.

One Miller charge, that "our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of a Democrat's manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief," led John H. Sununu, former Reagan White House chief of staff - no stranger to bitter partisanship - to ask in the press section: "What did John Kerry do to Zell Miller?"

Mr. Cheney, by disposition, style and political history, has never been much of a slashing campaigner. The word charisma, liberally attached to Mr. Edwards, has no application to him. Yet one Republican seated several rows above him in the hall held a sign throughout the convention proclaiming: "Cheney rocks!"

Democrats may see Mr. Cheney as the embodiment of the controversial doctrine of pre-emptive war and thus a vulnerable target. But to the GOP right wing, he has become an icon.

For that reason, he will see heavy duty on the stump from now until Election Day, especially in conservative areas. And not just in the byways, because among the party faithful he is solidity personified on the issues most important to them.

One recent exception, his accommodation to his daughter's sexual orientation by saying gay marriage should be left to the states rather than banned through a constitutional amendment, as Mr. Bush favors, went unmentioned in his speech. You're not likely to hear much more about it, either, as Mr. Cheney continues the job of soothing conservatives on most other issues even as he bashes, in his fashion, the man from liberal Massachusetts.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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