Wanted: A Liberal Dick Cheney

Vice President Richard Bruce Cheney is perhaps the most disliked public official in an administration full of unpopular individuals. He has historically low approval ratings; he rarely deigns to appear in public; he shot his friend in the face.

But he has also revolutionized the office of the vice presidency, and potentially established a new paradigm for the role. First, he has exercised powers vastly exceeding the formal constitutional functions of the office or those exercised by any of his predecessors. Secondly, not seeking higher office himself, he has been completely unfettered by concerns of future electability, legislative record, or popularity. Cheney has spent six years exerting outsized influence and a hard-line ideology, virtually all under the radar, answering to no one other than the president himself. While a solid majority of Americans disapprove of his job performance, the base of the Republican Party adores him, packing his fundraisers and tuning in every time he surfaces to chat with ideological brethren like Rush Limbaugh or Brit Hume. Given Cheney's personality and ideological orientation, he has of course done what many Democrats and independents view as tremendous damage to the country. The other way to look at it, though, is that he has assiduously and effectively implemented the agenda of today's conservatism. Which raises a question: What if the next vice president sustained the Cheney model -- but as a progressive?

The vice presidency, of course, was long a famously powerless and thankless post. Scholars and analysts widely consider Al Gore the first to break that mold; he was deemed the most influential vice president ever, until Cheney's tenure made Gore's influence look like that of a precinct captain. Even with his then-unprecedented level of autonomy and authority, however, Gore was hugely restricted in his actions both by his own political nature (for most of his political career, he was a centrist Democrat) and, more importantly, by his desire to be elected president himself.

For too long, conventional wisdom led candidates to choose centrist running mates, supposedly to better appeal to swing voters. Indeed, the past four Democratic vice presidential candidates were all, when chosen, seen as more conservative than the presidential candidate. In classic Rovian style, George W. Bush went against the conventional wisdom in 2000, turning what was thought to be a weakness -- a vice presidential candidate closer to the party's base than to the middle -- into a strength. Cheney was a hardliner and a tenacious debater, perfectly positioned to take advantage of an electoral strategy for which turning out the base was paramount. Cheney proved that a party does not have to pick a vice presidential candidate for ostensible "balance," whether ideological, regional, or demographic. (Republicans hardly had reason to worry about winning Wyoming, or, for that matter, angry old ultra-conservative white males.)

In office, of course, he blazed a trail of right-wing policymaking, foreign and domestic, often far under the radar. At once unaffected by the limited formal or historical powers assigned to the office and liberated from the desire for attention or approval, he was free to implement ideas and programs extolled by hard-line conservatives. His impact has been devastating.

But imagine a vice president with similar abilities, a comparable profile, and the same inclination to exercise maximal influence in office, but who is progressive and honest rather than reactionary and malevolent. Imagine a vice president more liberal than the president, someone who can reach out to the party's core constituencies, who has credibility to both lead liberals and sell tough administration compromises to the base when warranted. Imagine a vice president who is a pit bull both in the campaign and the administration, but all in service of progressive policies.

A vice president of the Cheney mold serves myriad benefits for his or her party. Indeed, it is important to realize how, even given his stunning national unpopularity, Cheney continues, perversely, to pay dividends for the president. If the current VP was busy angling for an electoral promotion, he would almost certainly be working to establish distance from a president and a war that are profoundly unpopular. A hypothetical current VP running for president would constantly be made to either conform to detested policies or stab his or her party's leader in the back. Instead of such distancing, Cheney merrily supports every administration move, while the Republican candidates can maintain some separation from the administration without actually affecting its practices. It even benefits those running after eight years of their party's rule: A candidate outside an administration can bask in the glow of its success but disavow the failures and avoid any popular "fatigue" attached to the outgoing administration.

Democrats, in other words, should take a lesson from the success of Dick Cheney. When the Democratic nominee makes a list of vice presidential possibilities, he or she should forget the obvious choices: no Richardson, no Dodd, and certainly not one of the Big Three. Better to pick someone too old and/or too liberal to seek the top job through the electorate. Current senators and governors need not apply, but if you've got a heart condition, send an application! Avoiding a liberal "boogeyman" is important (sorry, Senator Kennedy), and rhetoricians are out (thanks anyway, Governor Cuomo). The nominee should choose someone loyal, tenacious, and committed to the progressive cause, rather than someone who will hedge for four or eight years in pursuit of higher office.

The premise that such a person should be a relative unknown impedes specific examples, but one could imagine a variety of types potentially fitting the bill. Perhaps the most intriguing possibility -- if also the least likely -- is the man who first began moving the position into greater prominence. Al Gore's skills are perfectly suited for the role of chief tactician; were he to truly give up the dream of ascending to the presidency, he could take on the VP position as his current, let-it-rip liberal incarnation rather than the triangulating version from the 1990s. Other, more lower-level former elected officials are likely more realistic. The best option, however, may be a person the vast majority of Americans have never heard of -- someone along the lines of, say, John Podesta, the former White House chief of staff and a champion of progressive causes and infrastructure-building.

Readers may have better specific ideas for potential candidates. The point to remember is this: Republicans discovered a new way of enhancing their effectiveness in office both by making the position of vice president more powerful and by picking someone whose loyalty would be to the president and to ideological conviction more than to future electoral ambitions. With the model already established, this is something that can and should be replicated in the service of progressive causes.