The Second Lady-in-Waiting: Asset or Liability?

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Lynne Cheney is a very conservative woman — perhaps even more conservative than her husband, who's hardly the poster boy for moderate Republicans. And as Dick Cheney's appointment to the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket starts to sink in, there's a growing realization — among Republicans and Democrats alike — that Lynne's penchant for right-wing ideology could be a major factor in the campaign.

Once upon a time, the personal politics of first ladies hardly registered on the American electoral landscape, and second ladies existed in almost complete obscurity. But for better or worse, those days are over, and now the views of the vice presidential candidates' wives are subject to intense scrutiny and public discussion — and we're not just talking about a rousing debate on the merits of chocolate chip versus oatmeal raisin.

Lynne Cheney, perhaps more than any previous contender for second lady status, does not fit the traditional mold of political wife. Her career has kept pace with her husband's; she served as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the Reagan and Bush administrations, and is a longtime member of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. Her various high-profile positions have allowed Cheney to publish widely (in the New York Times, Washington Post and other national journals) on the subjects that interest her most, including the widespread deterioration of the American education system (a collapse she blames primarily on political correctness and "moral relativism").

By most accounts, the Cheneys are considerably more conservative than the Bushes, and even a cursory examination of Dick Cheney's record in Congress will reinforce that claim. In fact, if they were meeting in another situation, Lynne Cheney might clash with her husband's running mate on one issue in particular; Bush's Texas department of education is a powerful proponent of bilingual education, a trend Cheney once called "a great disservice to our national education budget." Such an exchange seems unlikely, of course; it would be highly unusual for a presidential nominee to engage his running mate's wife on such a volatile topic.

The Gore campaign, on the other hand, may be only too happy to highlight the Cheneys' collective unyielding conservatism — if only to emphasize the rift between an increasingly centrist American electorate and the hard-right tendencies of the couple George W. Bush has chosen to act as presidential proxies.