Almost exactly 48 hours before the Armstrong Ranch massacre, Dick Cheney delivered a dinnertime oration at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference down in Washington. I must say he didn’t look like a man on the verge of going postal (no more so than usual, that is). Actually, he seemed calmer and sunnier—less scowly, less snarly, more pink of cheek—than he has in quite some time. When he trundled up to the podium, he was greeted with a lusty ovation. With a curl of his upper-left lip that nearly qualified as a smile, Cheney said, “Getting a reception like that almost makes me want to run for office again.” A well-timed beat. “Almost.”
A little more than one week later, it’s difficult to imagine Cheney joking about tossing his hunter’s cap back in the ring and pursuing higher office. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine him joking about much of anything. The events surrounding Cheney’s errant-birdshot wounds of his quail-flushing companion Harry Whittington—events horrible and hilarious by turns, casting in stone a dark and scheming image long gestating in the public mind—are of a kind from which no politician could ever truly hope to recover. Indeed, the question now is whether Cheney will manage to serve out his term.
It’s a question, of course, that’s been asked before—asked and answered, you might say. Since George W. Bush took office, rumors of Cheney’s impending resignation have bloomed in the capital as reliably as the dogwoods. In 2004, he was going to be dumped for the sake of Bush’s reelection. In 2005, he was on the way out on the cusp of Scooter Libby’s indictment. Each time, the gossip came to nada.
And so it would be natural for sobersided people to dismiss the current round of speculation (which, for the record, is being indulged in not just by the lefty blogosphere but by paid-up conservatives such as Peggy Noonan). Certainly that was the reaction of White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who dismissed any mention of the R-word as “absurd.”
Yet in truth the case for Cheney’s resignation is more compelling today than ever. Now, let’s be clear, the point here isn’t that accidentally shooting a septuagenarian in the face is automatically a firing offense. The point is that, politically speaking, from the perspective of Bush and the Republican Party, it’s hard to argue that Cheney isn’t more trouble than he’s worth.
Start with the fact that Cheney, irrevocably, has gone from being a figure of fear to being a punch line—and not just in the hands of Leno, Letterman, and Conan. “I’m really glad to be here,” Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said the other day at a conference in San Jose. “My other invitation was to go quail hunting with Dick Cheney.” When someone as terminally unfunny as Gates can score laughs at your expense, you know you’ve crossed the pop-cultural Rubicon into Admiral Stockdale territory.
The mockery would be easier to shrug off were Cheney a broadly popular figure with the American electorate. But according to the most recent CBS–New York Times poll, the vice-president’s numbers—23 percent of voters view him favorably, 41 percent unfavorably—are even worse than Bush’s, a noteworthy achievement. Owing to his intimate involvement in a litany of policy cock-ups and politico-ethical scandals (Iraq, Halliburton, Plamegate), Cheney has long been, as Noonan put it last week, “the administration’s hate magnet.” Now he’s become a vivid symbol of its incompetence as well—the poster boy for the Gang That (Literally) Can’t Shoot Straight.
And let’s not forget that Cheney’s political albatrossity is only destined to grow more pronounced next year when the Libby trial commences. In the furor over Quailgate, it was easy to forget the recent disclosure that Libby had told the grand jury that his “superiors” had authorized some of his intelligence leaks to journalists. And it was easy to overlook Cheney’s startling suggestion in his interview with Brit Hume that, as vice-president, he has the power to declassify information unilaterally. Both revelations are ripe with legal import for Libby. And both are brimming with political implications for Cheney and Bush—none of them positive.
In the face of all this, the substantive argument for keeping Cheney on is the same as it’s always been: He’s Bush’s brain, the indispensable man without whom the administration would essentially evaporate. And yet, in any number of areas of policy where Cheney’s influence was once central, his presence now seems superfluous. On Iraq he’s been usurped by Condi Rice, on energy by whatever anarcho-syndicalist inserted into the State of the Union that business about how America is “addicted to oil.” (At CPAC, Cheney made a point of growling about new refineries and drilling in Alaska; perhaps out of fear that he would choke on the word, he failed once to mention ethanol.)