Jacob Heilbrunn

Why Doesn't Mitt Romney Love Dick Cheney?

Today, Mitt Romney will travel to the Teton Pines country club and a $30,000 per couple dinner at the home of former vice president Dick Cheney. The Washington Post says that it will amount to a passing of the torch from one of the leading members of the George W. Bush administration to Romney. But Romney's relationship with both George W. Bush and Cheney is farught with ambiguity, though he has referred to the latter as a "person"—Cheney would surely have used the noun "man"—of wisdom and judgment," words that Romney does not appear to have applied to the former president.

It could hardly be otherwise—and it points to one of the difficulties Romney faces as he tries to unseat President Obama. Obama has repeatedly tried to tie Romney to the Bush era, arguing that America has already tried the economic policies Romney is espousing and they failed miserably. Add in two wars launched by the Bush administration, and you have an American public that continues to take a dim view of the Bush presidency. The halo that retroactively surrounds a number of modern presidencies—Bill Clinton's stock, for example, has been steadily rising, partly because of the mishaps of his two successors—has not begun to circumvallate the Bush presidency. Quite the contrary.

Which is why the question of whether or not Romney would represent a reversion to the Bush-era foreign policy is acquiring a new prominence. The Post piece is symptomatic of attempts to divine just where Romney stands. It scrutinizes the Cheney dinner to ask whether officials from the Bush administration are successfully infiltrating the Romney campaign:

Many Cheney allies who shaped policy in the Bush years — including Lewis I. “Scooter” Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, John C. Yoo and David Addington — have no roles in the Romney campaign. Nor do many senior foreign policy figures from that period, such as Condoleezza Rice, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Colin L. Powell, Robert M. Gates and Stephen J. Hadley — although Hadley endorsed Romney in April and Rice spoke at Romney’s donor retreat last month.

But it also is the case that a number of neocons are advisers to Romney—so many that the Nation is not implausibly calling it Romney's neocon war cabinet. So, much head-scratching has ensued: Does Romney really mean it when he says that Russia is America's number-one foe? Is he prepared to take China to the World Court on the day he enters office? And would he bomb the ayatollahs back to the stone age? Or is it all a sop to the neocons?

Hence the fascination with the Cheney powwow. But perhaps the deeper relationship is between Romney and George H. W. Bush. The old man has been overtly enthusiastic about Romney, while the most his son managed to blurt out was "I'm for Mitt Romney" before ducking into an elevator, which is almost like saying, "I'm not against Mitt Romney." Small wonder that Romney kept mum when Bush made his unofficial endorsement. There may be a little intramural tension inside the Bush family as well. Forty-one likely sees Romney as his true disciple, a successor, who can rectify what forty-three bungled. So the question that continues to loom over Romney as he pals around with Cheney today is whether he can return the GOP to its more moderate, realist origins. Or whether he even wants to.