Due to my exchange with Eric at Nuts and Dolts regarding the 2004 election, I've been reconsidering the issue of the Republican ticket in 2004. After reading Peter Schramm's post on No Left Turns (via Powerline), I've decided that this issue is much more critical than it looked earlier.
First, Schramm is correct in asserting that Dean is remaking the Democratic Party into a radical-left political organization. As Hugh Hewitt predicted in his NRO column and blog today, Dean has energized this subset of the left so much that disengaging them by trying to drag them to the center probably isn't an option, and probably isn't where he wants to go anyway. Schramm predicts that if Dean can coast to the nomination, he will stay left and bring on another McGovern-style catastrophe. Hillary will stand on the sidelines and allow the debacle to unfold, establishing herself as a Churchill-in-the-wilderness figure that can then re-establish the Democrats as a centrist party for 2006 (her Senate re-election bid) and 2008, when she runs for President.
All of this will be good news for Bush and the Republicans in 2004, and the national election should not only safely return Bush to the White House, but will also produce significant gains in both houses of Congress as centrist Democrats either defect or stay home on Election Day. Bush will gather a powerful mandate and his legislative program will have at least two years, relatively unopposed, to establish itself. Even the mid-terms will probably be favorable or at least neutral to Bush while the Clintons and the DLC remnants re-establish their primacy in the Democratic Party.
This, however, will not be good news for the Republicans in 2008. A crushing Dean defeat gives Hillary the full four years to take over the party, initially in the guise of her Senate re-election campaign. Her husband will be recommissioned to raise funds, along with Terry McAuliffe and James Carville and possibly John Edwards. While the rabid right thinks that Hillary is too hated to be successful in a presidential election, Hillary and Bill give the party two important qualities that it lacks at the moment: glamour and credibility. They've won before, they've governed before, and they've delivered when asked. The leftists will be discredited as the driving force in the Democratic party, but the Clintons will skillfully harness them with the centrists to build a formidable coalition in 2008.
Put that against a Republican party that has been without credible opposition for at least one election cycle, and I will guarantee you a party that will overreach in its legislative program (as would the Democrats under the same conditions). Legislative overreach will alienate the independents and centrists that Bush will claim in 2004. Without credible opposition, Republicans will completely own the results of their extended rule, and there will be vulnerabilities as well as victories.
Now, under these conditions, who will run for President for the Republicans in 2008? I suggested that Bush would like to see Jeb run, but as more than one person has pointed out, that would be the third different Bush running in six elections, and the typical American revulsion at monarchy will make that a difficult sell, even to Republicans. Dick Cheney, while a fine and hardworking public servant, is not electable. He's spent most of the past term keeping an extremely low profile, even for a VP, so he excites no one as a Presidential candidate. He's too identified with the hard right of the party, and his past health issues effectively disqualify him for the Presidency, at least to the electorate.
That means that the VP slot must be opened up to someone who can reasonably compete in 2008 for the Presidency, since it allows the candidate four years to be seen in a quasi-executive role. (Of course, the VP will need to be allowed a lot more visibility than in this past term.) And because of the glamour and prestige of the Clintons, especially Hillary, it needs to be a candidate who can compete in this arena. It needs to be someone who can give credibility to the Republican Party with centrists and significant demographic segments of the population. Most of all, to be credible, the VP must be elected with Bush and not anointed later in the term. The 2004 election campaign will give the candidate the opportunity to demonstrate campaigning abilities and full potential to retain the Republican gains made in 2004.
Condoleezza Rice fills all of the qualifications. As a Vice Presidential candidate, she can actively campaign in a manner from which her role as NSA chief necessarily restrains her. She is unquestionably smart, attractive, skillful in debate, and possesses an excellent temperament, from all indications. She has the trust of Bush and his team and will provide the continuity desired in case she needs to ascend to the Presidency during Bush's term. Her candidacy in 2004 and 2008 would undoubtedly be historical and bold, out-glamourizing even the Clintons. The only element lacking from Rice's portfolio is a proven ability to campaign and to weather the kind of bruising that elections bring.
All that is needed is farsightedness on the part of Bush and the Republican team. They will feel a strong desire not to rejigger a winning formula in Bush-Cheney. But if Dean is already taking the Democrats over the cliff for 2004, Bush and Rove need to strategize against their real opponent in governing during the second term and in securing their post-office legacy.