At first, it seemed like a joke. Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto opined on Monday that -- if the 2012 election were to turn to national security -- "it's hard to think of a better candidate... than Richard B. Cheney."
But while his headline -- "Cheney for President" -- provoked guffaws in some quarters, several of the party's most well-regarded strategists and pollsters are actually taking the idea deadly seriously.
"The Republican Party needs to move forward and build on its past, not return to it," Alex Castellanos, a frequent CNN analyst and GOP messaging guru, told the Huffington Post via email. "But if the agenda turns to security, Obama is mired in a no-win mess in Afghanistan, and the Obama administration hasn't created a single job in four years after indebting the nation for generations, maybe Dick Cheney could run on a theme of 'Change'."
Asked whether it would be "rich" for a former vice president with four decades of service in D.C. to run on a change platform, Castellanos replied. "Republicans running on a change platform, after Obama, would not be rich. Change might mean 'responsibility and real growth'."
Longtime pollster and GOP operative John McLaughlin also said he sees an opening for a Cheney candidacy premised on a hypothetical national security failure from the current White House.
A Cheney nomination "would be a serious consideration because he really has been a defender of policies that the majority of people now think are successful," McLaughlin told the Huffington Post. "Although right now a lot of people are focused on the economy, if there ever was some sort of foreign policy crisis people will look to Dick Cheney and say he had it right."
Pointing to Cheney's strong favorability rating among Republicans (66 percent in a May 2009 poll compared to Colin Powell's 64 percent), McLaughlin also noted that the former vice president has a strong political platform from which to test the electoral waters.
"Right now he is writing a book, and I'm sure it will be very interesting to see how that book positions him," McLaughlin said. "I always thought that Senator [Hillary] Clinton's book positioned her for a run for the White House and I think it could be the same way with Dick Cheney."
Craig Shirley, a longtime Republican strategist who often has his finger on the pulse of the party's base, concurred while also noting that Cheney can galvanize conservatives in ways few other current figures can.
"In 2009, there are few absurdities left in American politics," he told the Huffington Post, via email. "Anything is possible and the mere fact that Cheney's name is being floated accomplishes several things including striking fear in the heart of President Obama, especially in light of the crumbing American position in Afghanistan, which could become Obama's Vietnam.
"It also gives aid and comfort to a still battered Republican Party as he is the only GOP leader besides [Newt] Gingrich uncowed by the dominate liberal elites manning the batteries in the nation's capital," Shirley wrote. "They are about the only two politicians on the right who are willing to make a fight of it."
Indeed one reason to take the Cheney-for-president idea seriously is that there is simply no one else to whom the GOP can turn. "He's got bite behind his bark which can't be said of all GOP contenders," said a former Republican leadership staffer. "He's certainly more effective at this point than [RNC Chairman] Michael Steele."
Of course, speculating about a Cheney presidency is ludicrous for many reasons. For starters, it's three years and several months until the general election. Moreover, the former vice president's age and health remain a major issue (as they did when he was picked to be VP nine years ago). And then there's the matter of his resume.
Obama won in large part by running against the Bush/Cheney record, which includes taking the country into a widely unpopular war based on nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, sinking the economy, and diminishing the country's moral stature. Cheney can't exactly distance himself from these things. If anything, he is widely considered to have been the power behind the throne. And his current cause celebre -- the use of torture on terrorist suspects -- makes him a lightning rod among independents and Democrats, even if it polls surprisingly well among Republicans.
For the record, Cheney has expressed no interest in being president, repeatedly ruling out another run for office.
Nevertheless, it's "not absurd" to consider him running for the White House, said David Frum, a former Bush adviser and current fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "He was vice president after all and if he were seriously interested he could be a candidate for sure. But seriously interested people build organizations, and it does not look as if he's doing that."
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a serious critic of Cheney's foreign policy ventures, agreed with Frum.
"Right now there is a zone that is free to play in and that is discussing who should run in 2012," he told the Huffington Post. "Because the only thing that matters for Republicans politically is 2010. Anything Cheney does other than raising money for congressional and senate candidates is a way of time and money or self-absorbed silliness."
And yet, the mere fact that Cheney's name is being mentioned for 2012 by a wide range of highly reputed conservatives provides a window into the current mindset of the Republican Party - so wedded to the posture of national security strength that it would consider turning to someone with such obvious political flaws, not to mention another aging white male.
"The Republican Party today consists of people who are conservative, religious, white and predominantly male," said Stephen Wayne, a political science professor at Georgetown University. "And, you know, if those are the only people who participate and you don't have a lot of other very conservative candidates it is conceivable Cheney could win the Republican nomination. But I don't think it is likely."
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