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Understanding Dick Cheney: The Power of the Undefeated Ex-VP—A Commentary by Aaron Zelinsky ’10

The following commentary was posted on the Huffington Post on February 20, 2010.

Understanding Dick Cheney: The Power of the Undefeated Ex-VP
By Aaron Zelinsky ’10

Dick Cheney is at it again. Recently, the self-proclaimed "Darth Vader" of George W. Bush's administration has been outdoing his fictional alter-ego. After his defeat, Lord Vader was gone from sight; Cheney keeps striking back, most recently criticizing the Administration's national security policy and calling Barack Obama a "one-term President."

Cheney's barbs are unusual for a former Vice President. For example, Dan Quayle and Al Gore were both relatively quiet during their successors' terms in office. If they had been more outspoken, the American public likely would not have paid them much attention. Why, in contrast, is Cheney emerging as an effective public spokesman for his party?

Cheney benefits from an important but unrecognized historical quirk: He is the first elected Vice President in eighty years to end his career electorally undefeated. His predecessors for the past eight decades have either lost a bid for a second term, failed in an attempt to win the presidency, or been elected President (thus ending their careers as ex-VPs). As a result, Cheney holds the aura of an elder statesman without the political taint of a lost election. Moreover, there is no historical precedent governing how ex-Vice President Cheney should behave as there is for ex-Presidents.

To be sure, much of Cheney's behavior stems from his own personality. He is, after all, the man who told his supporters to cease cheering during the 2004 election so that he could deliver a speech. Cheney cares little for being liked, and does not shy away from throwing punches. These personal quirks aside, Cheney occupies an oddly central place in the contemporary American dialogue for an ex-Vice President. Retiring electorally undefeated has facilitated this unique historical role.

Alexander Hamilton foresaw this problem. Hamilton considered former office holders dangerous to the health of the Republic if they were barred from seeking office again. In Federalist 72, Hamilton argued that term-limited ex-Presidents could become major liabilities to their successors and the nation, "wandering among the people like discontented ghosts, and sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess."

Luckily for America, Hamilton's vision did not come to pass because of one man: George Washington. Washington not only helped to invent the American Presidency; he created the American ex-Presidency. He served two terms and then retired to relatively quiet seclusion, allowing his successors to govern with little interference. Most ex-Presidents have largely followed Washington's example, leaving America with the model of the ex-President as elder statesman, largely above the political fray. It is this traditional model that former President George W. Bush invokes when he proclaims that Barack Obama "deserves my silence."

However, there is no similar historical paradigm for ex-Vice Presidents. Our first two ex-Vice Presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, ran successfully for President. Our third Vice President, Aaron Burr, makes Cheney seem downright tepid: Burr killed his chief political opponent, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel, and had designs on seizing Mexico. The next two Vice Presidents, George Clinton and Elbridge Gerry, never became ex-VPs; they both died in office. Daniel Tompkins made it, but was an ex-VP for only 99 days before his death. John C. Calhoun resigned the Vice Presidency and was elected to the Senate, where he had more power.

It was not until 1849 that a living, politically quiescent ex-VP emerged: George Dallas. Vice President under James K. Polk, Dallas shot himself in the electoral foot by breaking a Senate tie over a tariff bill that went against the interests of his home state, Pennsylvania, effectively taking himself out of the running to succeed Polk. Since Polk had promised to serve only one term, Dallas was not back in the VP slot either. However, Dallas was no Washington. He left little mark on the American political psyche, although his ex-VP career as a Minister to the U.K. did, in some respects, mirror Washington's renunciation of post-presidential politics.

The past eighty years have reinforced the trend of weak and electorally-defeated ex-Vice Presidents. Since 1929, every elected Vice President has finished his career by losing an election, save Spiro Agnew who resigned in disgrace. Elected Vice Presidents either lose a bid for a second term (Charles Curtis, Walter Mondale, Dan Quayle), fail in a bid to get their boss's job (John Garner, Henry Wallace, Alben Barkley, Richard Nixon -although he got it eight years later, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Al Gore) or become President but are then forced to leave office after a single elected term (Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush).

Thus, Dick Cheney occupies a historically unique position: He is an ex-VP who left office electorally undefeated and has not sought the Presidency. As a result, he retains some of the trappings of an undefeated elder statesman. However, since Cheney is an ex-VP and not a former President, he is not constrained by Washington's model of political reserve in retirement. Cheney is thus well situated to be an outspoken Republican partisan.

The decision of the Obama Administration to send the current Vice President to respond to Cheney's recent comments demonstrates the strength of Cheney's position. The Obama Administration correctly assessed that no one short of Vice President Biden has the gravitas to respond to the former Vice President. Both the current and the former Vice President handled their colloquy with admirable personal restraint and civility.

However, Hamilton warned us that this unique post-vice presidency will not necessarily turn out well for Mr. Cheney or the nation. This could be an opportunity for Cheney to set a precedent of stately reserve, but instead, he seems to be turning into Hamilton's "discontented ghost," headed toward the Dark Side of the Force.