Bush misses chance to extend himself and broaden base

Wednesday, July 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

George W. Bush muffed a great opportunity.

Dick Cheney may make a solid vice president -- perhaps even, if need be, a decent president. He was, after all, Gerald Ford's White House chief of staff, a Wyoming congressman and George Bush's secretary of defense.

But can't we have someone selected on substance who also gives voters cause for excitement? Governor Bush's selection of Cheney does nothing to make the Republican ticket more electable.

Cheney brings to the ticket no obvious political strength and symbolizes no special outreach. He does not represent the prospect of bringing a big state into the GOP camp. He lacks a dazzling personality. He opposes abortion rights, has an ultra-conservative House voting record that critics will rush to eviscerate, and he offers no bridge to independents and Democrats smitten by John McCain.

In some ways, Cheney actually overshadows Bush, who is younger and has less expertise in Washington and foreign affairs. In that sense, it's reassuring to know Cheney's around. But it does make you wonder about the top guy, especially if you believe Bush's father pulled the strings that resulted in the pick the son made.

Bush could have used this choice to highlight his oft-stated goal of broadening the traditional GOP base. Jim Bennett, his Rhode Island chairman, said, "It shows Bush is not being purely political." Bush, he said, was serious about quality.

Bob Watson, state McCain chairman, called it an "interesting and safe" selection.

Top Democrats -- Sen. Jack Reed and Joe Paolino, state chairman for Al Gore -- were quick to needle Bush. Reed said, "He didn't reach out, he reached back." Paolino said, "He's reached into the past." (I can't wait to hear what these guys say if Gore taps former Sen. George Mitchell for VP.)

I was especially interested in Reed's views. He's one of the few Rhode Islanders who actually knows Cheney. When Reed was a congressman, he helped block a Bush administration plan that he says would have meant the death of Electric Boat, the submarine builders. Reed says Cheney "definitely had no sensitivity to the Northeast in terms of the defense industry."

On the plus side, Reed said, "He's a very professional, competent, quiet, thoughtful person."

As for how Cheney would fare if thrust into the presidency, Reed said, "He's probably more competent than Governor Bush, which says something about that ticket."

A Rhode Islander who's been closer to Cheney is former Republican state chairman Jim Field. He was an aide to Cheney in the Ford regime and, briefly, in Richard Nixon's administration.

Field hailed Bush's pick as "a great choice." He praised Cheney's "tremendous intelligence" and his ability to "build consensus." Field asserted, "He never has his own agenda and I think he's a very good arbiter of complicated issues and points of view."

That's terrific -- if Cheney ever becomes VP. When I asked Field how Cheney will fare on the campaign trail, he said, "That will be interesting. I probably view them as Bush, Mr. Outside, and Dick being a strong inside person. I think Dick will be able to give good content-filled speeches, and he's good one on one. Communicating thoughts to the media in a national arena will certainly be different for him. He's probably, on the face of it, not as exciting as some folks might be, like John McCain. But on the other hand, I think he's really full of substance."

Field advises, "Get to know him. He's a tower of strength. He's really a hero in that he's done a lot of things. He's done it in a self-effacing way."

Field said Cheney reminds him of the late Sen. John Chafee in being "low-key, modest, always giving credit to other people."

In the end, maybe no one cares who's in a ticket's second slot. As others have noted: Lloyd Bentsen was by far a more impressive 1988 choice for VP than Dan Quayle. And you know which ticket won.

M. Charles Bakst, The Journal's political columnist, can be reached by e-mail at mbakst@projo.com