Dick Cheney, Role Model
In all the talk about the vice-presidential debate, there was an issue that did not get much attention but kept nagging at us: Sarah Palin’s description of the role and the responsibilities of the office for which she is running, vice president of the United States.
In Thursday night’s debate, Ms. Palin was asked about the vice president’s role in government. She said she agreed with Dick Cheney that “we have a lot of flexibility in there” under the Constitution. And she declared that she was “thankful that the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president also, if that vice president so chose to exert it.”
It is hard to tell from Ms. Palin’s remarks whether she understands how profoundly Dick Cheney has reshaped the vice presidency — as part of a larger drive to free the executive branch from all checks and balances. Nor did she seem to understand how much damage that has done to American democracy.
Mr. Cheney has shown what can happen when a vice president — a position that is easy to lampoon and overlook — is given free rein by the president and does not care about trampling on the Constitution.
Mr. Cheney has long taken the bizarre view that the lesson of Watergate was that Congress was too powerful and the president not powerful enough. He dedicated himself to expanding President Bush’s authority and arrogating to himself executive, legislative and legal powers that are nowhere in the Constitution.
This isn’t the first time that Ms. Palin was confronted with the issue. In an interview with Katie Couric of CBS News, the Alaska governor was asked what she thought was the best and worst about the Cheney vice presidency. Ms. Palin tried to dodge: laughing and joking about the hunting accident in which Mr. Cheney accidentally shot a friend. The only thing she had to add was that Mr. Cheney showed support for the troops in Iraq.
There was not a word about Mr. Cheney’s role in starting the war with Iraq, in misleading Americans about weapons of mass destruction, in leading the charge to create illegal prison camps where detainees are tortured, in illegally wiretapping Americans, in creating an energy policy that favored the oil industry that made him very rich before the administration began.
Ms. Couric asked Joseph Biden, Ms. Palin’s rival, the same question in a separate interview. He had it exactly right when he told her that Mr. Cheney’s theory of the “unitary executive” held that “Congress and the people have no power in a time of war.” And he had it right in the debate when he called Mr. Cheney “the most dangerous vice president we’ve had in American history.”
The Constitution does not state or imply any flexibility in the office of vice president. It gives the vice president no legislative responsibilities other than casting a tie-breaking vote in the Senate when needed and no executive powers at all. The vice president’s constitutional role is to be ready to serve if the president dies or becomes incapacitated.
Any president deserves a vice president who will be a sound adviser and trustworthy supporter. But the American people also deserve and need a vice president who understands and respects the balance of power — and the limits of his or her own power. That is fundamental to our democracy.
So far, Ms. Palin has it exactly, frighteningly wrong.