For those who feared that the speakers at last week’s Republican National Convention had failed to adequately impress upon the American electorate the view that death and grief and sorrow would be the predictable byproducts of John Kerry’s election to the presidency, Vice President Dick Cheney has spelled out the threat in excruciating detail.

“It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we’ll get hit again in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States,” Cheney grumbled to a gathering of the ceaselessly-nodding Republican party faithful in Des Moines.

Cheney’s claim that the replacement of the administration he runs — with an assist from George W. Bush — by a Kerry administration would call down the wrath of global terrorism on the homeland is easily the most irresponsible statement of a campaign that has not exactly been characterized by moderation.

The Democratic response was to condemn Cheney in the bizarrely tepid fashion that has come to characterize the opposition party’s dysfunction attempt to retake the White House. “Protecting America from vicious terrorists is not a Democratic or Republican issues, it’s an American issue and Dick Cheney and George Bush should know that,” whined Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards.

Let it be recorded that, despite the firm slap on the wrist that was administered by Mr. Edwards, Mr. Cheney did not choose to retract his remarks. And he won’t.

Edwards and other Democrats make a mistake when they assume, as Edwards did, that the vice president is merely playing politics. When Edwards suggested that Cheney was employing “scare tactics,” and that the Republicans “will do anything and say anything to save their jobs,” he gave Cheney far too much credit.

It is true, of course, that the vice president would say anything and do anything in order to maintain his grip on power. But it does not necessarily follow that Cheney is simply carrying out a political hit. Indeed, if the past is prologue, there is every reason to assume that the vice president believes what he is saying about the damage that will befall the land if he and his minions are not working the levers of authority.

Few figures in American politics maintain a world view that is so consistently apocalyptic as does Cheney. Fewer still have allowed petty fears and profound ignorance to so dramatically warp their actions and public pronouncements.

Cheney’s Cold War obsessions have frequently placed him on the wrong side of history, causing him to misread the geopolitical realities of regions around the world — and of the key players within them. This is the man who was so certain that the African National Congress was a dangerous group that he regularly voted, as a member of Congress in the 1980s, against House resolutions calling for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners in South Africa. While leading conservative Republicans such as Jack Kemp were hailing Mandela as an iconic fighter for freedom and racial justice, Cheney continued to decry the ANC as “a terrorist organization” and to dismiss its leaders as threatening radicals.

During the same period that Cheney was championing the imprisonment of Mandela, the Republican representative from Wyoming was one of the most prominent Congressional advocates for the Reagan administration’s illegal war making in Central America. When the administration’s crimes were exposed as the Iran-Contra scandal, former White House counsel John Dean notes, “Cheney became President Reagan’s principle defender in Congress.” Cheney argued that those who sought to hold the Reagan administration accountable for illegal acts in Latin America were “prepared to undermine the presidency” and the ability of future presidents to defend the United States.

When he left the House to become George Herbert Walker Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Cheney struggled to maintain the Pentagon’s Cold War footing even as the Berlin Wall was crumbling. Obsessed with the notion that the United States should retain the capacity to launch preemptive wars against nation’s that were perceived even as possible threats, Cheney was a hyperactive advocate for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Unfortunately for Secretary of Defense, whose passion for deposing Saddam Hussein reached surreal levels, the “Operation Scorpion” scheme he and his aides developed for imposing “regime change” upon Iraq was so ineptly plotted that it was scrapped after a cursory review by General Norman Schwarzkopf. “I wondered whether Cheney had succumbed to the phenomenon I’d observed among some secretaries of the army,” observed Schwarzkopf, the commander on the ground in the region. “Put a civilian in charge of professional military men and before long he’s no longer satisfied with setting policy but wants to outgeneral the generals.”

When Cheney and a self-selected Praetorian Guard set up the new Republican administration that took charge of the White House after the 2000 election, the vice president could not be bothered to address real threats to the country because he remained obsessed with what turned out to be a ridiculously hyped Iraqi threat. As former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill noted, Cheney and his aides were in the first days of 2001 “already planning the next war in Iraq and the shape of a post-Saddam country.”

On the issue of Iraq, Cheney has allowed his tendency toward apocalyptic fantasies to go unchecked. When the vice president was peddling the “case” for invasion, he made far more remarkable claims than did Bush. Charging that Saddam had “resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons,” Cheney warned a 2002 Veterans of Foreign Wars convention that, “Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of the world’s energy supplies, directly threaten American friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.”

Whew! Scary stuff!

Even scarier, however, is the fact that, as Cheney’s claims were proven wrong, the vice president continued to repeat them — long after Bush had backed off, and long after there was any political advantage to be gained.

This, of course, is where assessing Cheney gets difficult. It is no longer clear where Cheney is deliberately deceiving the American people and where he has deliberately deceived himself. It is easy to call Cheney a “liar,” — and there is no question that the vice president has been caught more than once twisting the truth. But Dick Cheney’s biggest lies are almost certainly the ones he tells himself. As such, he will never back away from his charge that changing administrations would be a “wrong choice.”

A man who so frequently anticipates the apocalypse is likely to fall into the habit of believing that he alone recognizes that true dangers facing his country.

But why would anyone else treat Cheney seriously? Why would the press repeat his over-the-top charges without noting that Dick Cheney has a track record of reading the world wrong, imagining threats where they do not exist and neglecting real dangers? Why would it go unmentioned that the man who is questioning John Kerry’s judgement thought Nelson Mandela was a terrorist?

That’s what John Edwards should be talking about.

Instead of complaining that the vice president is engaging in “scare tactics,” the Democrat should be suggesting that Americans ought to be afraid, very afraid, of Dick Cheney.

(John Nichols’ book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. It’s available in independent bookstores nationwide and at