Dick Cheney already has established himself as one of the most influential and powerful vice presidents in history, leaned on heavily by President Bush for everything from political advice to the direction of the war on terror.
Yet Mr. Cheney’s profile — both within the Republican Party and especially out — has risen sharply this week with the Supreme Court’s hearing a case involving his energy task force, his appearance with Mr. Bush before the September 11 commission and his lead role in attacking Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Mr. Cheney’s ties to the oil industry long have made him an irresistible target of Democrats’ ire.
“Cheney is probably closest to Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew as vice presidents that generate the most passionate and polar reactions from voters,” said Republican political consultant Frank Donatelli.
Democratic officials have become impassioned in their attacks on Mr. Cheney after his speech this week in Missouri attacking Mr. Kerry’s votes against several defense-spending programs throughout the 1990s.
Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, got exceptionally personal when he said on CNBC’s “Capital Report” on Tuesday that Mr. Cheney was “afraid” to serve in the Vietnam War because he got several deferments that kept him stateside.
“I don’t resent anyone who doesn’t want to serve in the military,” Mr. Harkin said. “This is a free country. But this was at the time of the Vietnam War. [Mr. Cheney] skated. But, again, that’s his business.
“But then I don’t want someone like Mr. Cheney coming back and trying to wave the flag and calling someone like John Kerry — who risked his life in Vietnam, who is a genuine war hero — casting aspersions on his character,” Mr. Harkin said. “To me, that really is galling for someone, a chicken hawk like Dick Cheney, who was afraid to serve.”
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, took to the floor of the Senate yesterday to pick up on the theme of calling the vice president and other high-level Bush administration officials “chicken hawks.”
“They cast aspersions on others,” Mr. Lautenberg said. “When it was their turn to serve, where were they? AWOL, that’s where they were.
“The lead chicken hawk against Senator Kerry is the vice president of the United States,” he said. “What nerve.”
Mr. Nixon, Mr. Agnew and Mr. Cheney share common characteristics as vice presidents, Mr. Donatelli said: A penchant for tough rhetoric, conservative ideology and polarizing stands on foreign-policy and military issues.
“In addition, Cheney is generally recognized to be the most influential vice president ever, especially on national-security matters,” Mr. Donatelli said. “As such, he generates stronger support and opposition than would a more marginal figure.”
Indeed, the fire directed at Mr. Cheney is fierce and nonstop.
“I can’t think of a vice president since Agnew that spent so little time working on the people’s problems and more on attacking decorated veterans to deflect on their own failures,” said Kerry spokesman David Wade. “Frankly, this is Spiro Agnew Jr.”
Republican political consultant Dan Schnur predicts that the attacks on Mr. Cheney will backfire on the Democrats.
“They thought they could damage [George] Bush by piling on his running mate, and it didn’t happen,” Mr. Schnur said. “The Dukakis campaign [in 1988] beat up on Dan Quayle six ways to Sunday, and it probably didn’t cost George Bush a single vote.”
The more that the Kerry campaign focuses on responding to Mr. Cheney, Mr. Schnur said, the less attention is paid to getting out the candidate’s message.
“If the Kerry campaign decides to fill that narrow window of opportunity with criticism of Dick Cheney, then the president is running for re-election free and clear.”
But there doesn’t appear to be any inclination to stop, said veteran Democratic political consultant Bob Mulholland, and it might even intensify.
“Cheney comes in with the baggage of looking like a mean old man and acting like a mean old man,” Mr. Mulholland said. “This is only the beginning. We’re going to make his life miserable.”