Exit Cheney, Enter Ridge?

Don’t expect anyone in the White House to confirm it, but Tom Ridge could replace Dick Cheney as George W. Bush’s vice- presidential running-mate in the 2004 election.

Ridge was on Bush’s “short list” in the 2000 election but not selected, primarily because Bush didn’t wish to alienate his conservative right-wing base. Ridge not only was perceived to be a “moderate” in a party that had become dominated by the far- right, he was a Catholic, a decidedly unpopular selection for the right-wing; and an opponent to governmental interference to tell a woman she had no right to choose, a decidedly unpopular choice among Catholics.

Like the presidential candidate, Cheney was a multimillionaire businessman who was embraced by all the right- wing slices of the Republican party and tolerable to the moderates. (The liberal Republicans were never a concern.) But, unlike Bush, who was seen as an affable but bumbling intellectual lightweight, Cheney had a distinguished history in both elected and appointed offices at the highest levels of government.

During the first nine months of Bush’s term, with dozens of politically-savvy and intellectually-superior “Old Guard” (including Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleeza Rice) in cabinet and advisory positions it appeared that Bush, still perceived to be a lightweight, was serving as special assistant to the vice-president and the coalition of Daddy Elder’s advisors. In reality, Bush was getting an intense course in how to be a president.

Bush graduated on Sept. 11. In order to assert his leadership to give the nation stability, Bush had no choice but to exile Cheney to “undisclosed locations” under the guise of national security. There is no evidence that Cheney disagreed.

Cheney doesn’t need a second term as vice-president to prepare to be a presidential candidate. By the 2004 election, Cheney will have survived several more health crises, and be entitled to again enjoy the rewards of a lifetime of national service and fortune-building. He will have served his purpose to Bush and to the Republican party.

Exit Dick Cheney.

Enter Tom Ridge.

Bush may have considered offering Ridge a cabinet position. If so, Ridge probably declined it in order to serve the two years remaining of his governorship. As a governor of a major industrial state, Ridge could command national exposure; as a cabinet-level secretary–there was no way Bush would have given him Defense over Rumsfeld or State over Powell–Ridge would be lost within the catacombs of Washington politics.

Simultaneous with the announcement, Oct. 8, that he was creating the Office of Homeland Security, Bush nominated Ridge as its first director. At the time, Ridge was within three months of entering the last year of his second and final term as Pennsylvania governor. Making Ridge’s transition to Washington easier were two major factors. First, the lieutenant governor didn’t wish to run for a full term, thus not upsetting the party’s support for the attorney general who did wish to be governor. Second, both Bush and Ridge knew that had Ridge completed his term as governor, he would be out of office–and possibly out of the public’s interest–for the last two years of the Bush presidency. There is nothing worse for a politician than to be seen as irrelevant. The Sept. 11 disaster guaranteed national exposure–and the perception that Ridge, by giving up the governorship, was serving his country, not his own political interests.

As director of homeland security, Ridge has a broad mandate, but little actual power, a small staff and minimal budget. The possibility of him being able to coordinate well-entrenched biases and turf-sensitivities within the FBI, CIA, and Defense Department are remote. But, for several reasons, the position assures Ridge of being a prime candidate for the vice-presidency.

–Ridge was given the title of Assistant to the President, but with cabinet-level rank.

–In a White House where access to the President is seen as the measure of one’s political life, Ridge not only reports directly to the President–almost all senior staff report to the chief of staff or a deputy–but has an office less than 50 feet from the President’s.

–This access also gives Bush and his political advisors a chance not only to better evaluate Ridge for the vice-presidency, but to insulate him from political mistakes. The appointment could very well be a two-year vice-presidential internship.

–Ridge coyly flirted with running for the presidency in 2000. Four years of serving as a vice-president gives him the experience and credibility for an all-out campaign in 2008 should Bush win a second term.

–For a party that places military service higher than other forms of national service, Ridge has impeccable credentials. While Bush spent his military career in National Guard ready rooms, Ridge, with a Harvard degree, was drafted into the Army as a “grunt” during the Vietnam War and came out as a staff sergeant wearing the Bronze Star.

–Ridge has done nothing to alienate the NRA, which once claimed it would be in the White House with Bush.

–Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, the nation’s fifth largest block in 2000, went to Gore-Lieberman. Even with redistricting which will lower Pennsylvania’s ranking, the Keystone State is still one of the major electoral blocks. With Ridge on the 2004 ticket, establishing a geographical balance that Bush-Cheney didn’t have, the electoral votes would probably go to Bush-Ridge, even though the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh urban areas will probably go with a more liberal ticket.

–Attorney General John Ashcroft, probably selected by Bush as one of dozens of ways to reward the right-wing, is now seen as a political liability. Ridge, the moderate, now becomes a political asset.

–The selection of candidates also means selection of candidate spouses. Laura Bush was a librarian who, with her husband’s approval, is pushing an educational agenda for the Bush presidency. Michele Ridge was executive director of the Erie County Library System. One of Bush’s first presidential appointments was to name her to the Commission on Presidential Scholars which selects high-achieving high school students. Equally important, neither Laura Bush nor Michele Ridge upstage their husbands, a “problem” conservatives screeched in horror at the tenure of Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton.

If Bush-Ridge ran this year, bathed in the glow of artificially-elevated ratings during the war on terrorism, they’d probably win. But, Bush’s popularity is likely to fall as America redirects its priorities from war to peace, and the economy continues to falter, signs that had set the stage for the one- term presidency of his father. If he wants to avoid a similar fate, Bush the Younger may need the equally youthful Ridge.

Walt Brasch’s latest book is The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Administration, a humorous look at the media, politics, and social issues of the era.

Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.