The Washington Times

Forgive a bit of political whimsy this week. The 2004 presidential election is far enough away that one can speculate freely, without the intrusion of stubborn facts, so why not? Question: What does George W. Bush do to give himself the best chance of re-election?

Part of the answer to this is already clear: Mr. Bush is going to work doggedly to enact the agenda he campaigned on in 2000. Assuming it goes well, with attendant peace and prosperity as well as high job approval ratings, Mr. Bush may not have to do much of anything different or dramatic for 2004. He may also benefit from lingering disarray among Democrats, who currently are obsessing to a perhaps unhealthy degree about Bill Clinton. (To all those who have been telling Republicans to “move on” over the years: It isn’t so easy to move on, now is it?)

But this is surely the rosiest scenario for Mr. Bush – 1984’s “Morning in America” redux. Let’s have a look at a slightly darker one.

Suppose, in the fall of 2003, Mr. Bush is doing OK. Not great, not badly, but OK. Well enough to have warded off any possibility of a Republican primary challenge for the nomination, not so well that victory in November 2004 against a serious Democratic challenger looks like a sure thing. What then?

Probably nothing dramatic, of course. Focus on developing new forward-looking issues, co-opt the opposition’s issues, deploy the awesome communications power of the White House and an incumbent administration.

But there is one potential nuclear option available to Mr. Bush: Dick Cheney and Colin Powell could switch jobs.

Mr. Cheney resigns as vice president. Mr. Bush names Mr. Powell to replace him. Under the terms of the twenty-fifth amendment, Mr. Powell’s name goes to the House and Senate for confirmation; it would likely be unanimous. Whereupon Mr. Bush names Mr. Cheney secretary of state.

Mr. Powell is unlikely to see his stature as one of the most admired men in America decline between now and 2004. He has been heavily courted for the vice presidency before, after all, and he would have been a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination if he hadn’t made the decision not to seek it. And, of course, there would be the element of the historic in the move. Mr. Powell would be not just the first black candidate for the vice presidency, but the first black vice president. As to whether this would constitute a long-term solution to the Republican problem with African American voters, no one knows, but it would surely have a measurable effect in 2004.

What would Mr. Cheney think of the idea? Probably not much, granted, and it strikes me as highly unlikely that such a scenario could develop without his consent. Never before has a vice president been so close to the center of administration decision-making, and he has clearly been enjoying himself in the office. On the other hand, and most important, he has no aspirations to run for president himself (and this is, in his own estimation, a key to his utility to Mr. Bush). Secretary of state of the most powerful nation in the world is a robust portfolio, to put it mildly, and with the confidence of the president, Mr. Cheney would have a free hand in running foreign policy (more so than Mr. Powell currently does with Mr. Cheney in the No. 2 slot). Moreover, Mr. Cheney didn’t especially seem to enjoy the campaign trail in 2000. Perhaps he would not care to repeat what would be, if anything, a more grueling experience, one running not just from July to November but starting essentially full-time in late 2003. His health may be a consideration for him here as well.

Other obstacles to this scenario? I’ll admit, I can think of a few. For starters, Mr. Powell has himself disdained the vice presidency in favor of secretary of state. But again, this would be different. He would not be merely a candidate, aspiring to an office of uncertain relevance in the scheme of things. He would run for the office from the office, and as Mr. Cheney himself demonstrates, Mr. Bush is in principle willing to deploy a vice president to maximum effect. Mr. Powell would need Mr. Bush’s assurances about the substance of the vice president’s portfolio, which would presumably include an array of the domestic matters Mr. Powell has been keenly interested in and currently fall outside his State Department purview.

Mr. Powell’s wife, Alma, is said to be opposed to a political career for her husband. But now Mr. Powell is once again in office, already with a motorcade and a retinue of security everywhere he goes. Now, in short, it’s a question of which office – how he will serve, not whether.

Conservative activists have been suspicious of Mr. Powell, not least because he is pro-choice. It would be a big step for the party to place an abortion-rights supporter on the national ticket. On the other hand, if the party is ever going to do so, it would have an easier time in the case of someone with Mr. Powell’s superstar status. As for other possible reservations among conservative activists, at the moment, this community seems to have wholeheartedly embraced the Bush administration as the vehicle for its aspirations. This may change, but it would probably first have to take the form of a series of perceived policy sellouts by the administration. If Mr. Bush sticks to an agenda that satisfies conservatives, they are unlikely to desert him over an action that might, by itself, secure him (and them) four more years in the White House .

Those with reservations will also probably console themselves with the fact that Mr. Powell will be 71-years-old in 2008 – rather old to be running for president. It would, of course, be up to Mr. Powell to decide whether they are right to be consoled by this. He could sit tight, go about his business, and see how he feels. (What, by the way, will it take to defeat Hillary Clinton’s White House aspirations? Maybe someone with a little more heft than a Rick Lazio.)

There are other practical problems, but they may just need a bit of massaging. It might be a good idea to provide the secretary of state with an official residence, for example (on security grounds). And I see no reason why there can’t be two Cheneys in Mr. Bush’s Cabinet. Lynne Cheney is abundantly qualified to play a formal substantive role in policy matters, as she has in the past in Washington.