Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 1, 2008
POLITICS: The McCain Veepstakes Rules
The hottest topic in Republican circles, ever since John McCain iced the nomination, is who he should pick as his running mate. There are many interesting names floated, and McCain will have good reason to make a show of talking to a bunch of candidates for the job, as a way of courting different groups and party leaders and feeling out people who might end up with other jobs in his Administration.
But realistically, there are a number of constraints on what kind of candidate McCain can or should pick. The Vice Presidency isn't like other appointments, since he or she is independently elected and can't be fired. And McCain's choice will be of particular significance for a few reasons. First, because of his age, voters will want more assurance than usual that his running mate is ready to step into the job at a moment's notice. Second, also because of McCain's age, he's seen as less likely to serve two terms; his running mate, win or lose in 2008, will have a leg up to be the heir apparent in 2012. And third, many conservatives are unhappy with McCain as the party leader, and want to see that the moderates have not taken permanent control of the party.
Let's start with the Don'ts, which will be especially important in this process. I'm not saying that McCain will necessarily follow these rules, but he should and I suspect he will. And I'm not saying that it's impossible that he will take someone who breaks them, but it will be a very heavy burden to overcome, and probably fatal for anyone who violates more than one of them. (This list is not necessarily presented in any particular order of importance).
1. No Senators: In every presidential election year, many Senators don the red shirt
Could McCain choose someone from the House? Possibly, but it still means the downsides of a Senator's association with the current Beltway conditions, and without the gravitas and name recognition the Senate enjoys.
2. No Bushies: After 8 years of any president, the public wants a new team in place; with Bush's approval ratings in the dumps, and particularly given that those low approval ratings are driven so heavily by unhappiness with Bush's executive management during his second term, especially Hurricane Katrina, the management of the Iraq War and lower-level screwups such as former Attorney General Gonzales' mishandling of what should have been a routine decision to remove a number of U.S. Attorneys, McCain needs a clean break from anyone seen as being part of Bush's management team. That means no Condi Rice, whatever her other virtues as a candidate - McCain's been arguing for five years against parts of the Administration's approach in Iraq, and regardless of the merits of those arguments he couldn't well turn around and pick Bush's single closest foreign policy advisor. It also means no Chris Cox, even if he'd be a fine pick for many of the reasons Quin Hillyer identified in early March; with the collapse of Bear Stearns, Cox has also had a recent education in why being the SEC Chairman is a better way to become a scapegoat than to advance to higher office. And it probably means no Rob Portman, either; while the former six-term Congressman's popularity back home in Ohio will earn him a serious consideration, and while his tenure as Bush's Trade Representative and then Budget Director hasn't made him a high-profile Administration figure, and while most of the grievances with Bush's spending policies predate Portman's tenure at OMB, the simple fact of haling from the Bush White House probably counsels against taking Portman.
3. No Old Retired Guys: McCain's age is a double-edged sword, as it does help him connect with older voters, while alienating young voters who are more interested in "cool" and "change" than understanding the actual requirements of the job. Either way, it would be folly to exacerbate the old-graybeard image by adding a candidate who is old, bald and recently pulled out of mothballs like Fred Thompson or Phil Gramm. An active governor like 66-year-old Don Carcieri might not have the same problem, but I'd still bet on someone with some non-white hair left.
4. No Rookies: On the other end of the spectrum, a large part of McCain's argument, especially against Obama, will be that McCain is experienced, battle-tested, and ready to take the now-proverbial 3 a.m. phone call. But as I noted above, given his age, he'll be undercutting that argument if his running mate doesn't also clearly pass that 3 a.m. test - and that means no first-term Governors or Senators, no Lieutenant Governors or state legislators, no business people without government experience. It has to be someone who has more experience and credibility than the Democrats' presidential nominee.
5. No Novice Politicians: This is a similar but related issue, and trips up people like Rice and Colin Powell who might pass the test for foreign policy credibility: the Obama campaign of late has been yet another illustration of why and how inexperienced politicians get in trouble trying to run national campaigns - there's too much new stuff to come out, they don't do damage control well, they react badly when people throw rotten fruit and the kitchen sink at them. McCain will need someone who knows how to stand in and take it in the closing months of a tense campaign.
6. No Pro-Choicers: McCain, unlike Rudy Giuliani, has been able to pass all the minimal-acceptability thresholds for social conservatives, particularly pro-lifers. But social conservatives remain uneasy with him, and he can't afford significant defections from his base if he is going into a difficult fight in the fall. The one thing that's certain to set off a huge and ugly battle within the party is taking someone who supports legal abortion.
Rudy, had he won the nomination, would have needed an especially vigorous pro-lifer as his running mate; McCain doesn't have to go that far, but he does need a running mate who is at least meets the same minimal standards of trust with pro-lifers. That rules out open pro-choicers; it also rules out people whose views on this crucial issue are simply unknown or not fully formed.
7. No Iraq War Opponents: McCain's signature issue in this campaign has been his steadfast support for the Iraq War. McCain can and possibly should take someone who has criticized aspects of the war-fighting strategy and tactics employed over the past 5 years, as he has; but it would create an impossible muddling of McCain's message to have a running mate who opposed or came to oppose the war.
8. No Democrats: I like Joe Lieberman as much as the next guy, and would trust him to be the next Commander-in-Chief...but the presidency isn't only about foreign policy. McCain still needs Republican votes to win, and - again with the age factor - while many Republicans would be happy to see a Democrat like Lieberman in the right job in a McCain Administration (i.e., in a job whose responsibilities are limited to his areas of agreement with McCain), the Vice Presidency has to go to someone Republicans could get behind as a president.
9. No Closeted Gays: There's not a real good way to say this, but...well, if you look at the publicly floated lists of potential running mates on both the Republican and Democratic sides you see some people who have long been rumored to be gay. I have no inside insight or information about any such people; I can only know the rumors, but I assume the people vetting the candidates are better suited to get at the truth. I do know this: whether or not you believe America is ready for an openly gay candidate on the national ticket, it would be a complete political catastrophe for either party (albeit for different reasons) to pick a closeted candidate who then gets forcibly 'outed' during the stretch run of a national campaign - and you'd be a fool to bet against that happening (I discussed a similar issue here). For the GOP in particular, after the Larry Craig and Mark Foley fiascoes, this would be the equivalent of sticking your face on a land mine and hoping nothing bad happens.
10. No Lobbyists: As a general rule, "lobbyists" is one of those words that when you hear a politician use it, you can be sure that the entire sentence containing the word is utter baloney. That said, this campaign season has seen more than the usual blather about lobbyists, and McCain and his more likely opponent, Obama, both like to posture about separating themselves from the whole DC lobbying scene ... I just can't see McCain choosing a running mate who has actually worked as a lobbyist at any point, like Fred Thompson or Haley Barbour.
11. No 2006 Losers: You sometimes see people throw around names of various Republicans who got voted out of office in 2006. To be blunt: give it up. When you start trying to figure out how to turn around the GOP's setbacks in the last election and how potential running mates could help McCain, you're not going to choose anybody who lost their last election, especially not just two years ago.
12. No Perennial Short-Listers: This might be called the Jack Kemp category - there are certain people in Republican politics (mainly former House members like Cox, John Kasich, and JC Watts) who have been mentioned continually for years and years for higher posts: Senate, Governor, Vice President, federal judge, high Cabinet posts - and somehow never end up in the race. There's usually a reason for that. Sometimes, it means the guy has skeletons in the closet, sometimes it means he lacks the "fire in the belly," ... whatever the reason, discount rumors about people who have been passed over many times before.
13. No New Mothers: OK, this is a one-candidate category, but Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin gave birth less than a month ago, and her fifth child has Down's Syndrome - even leaving aside her relatively short resume in office, no way you take a new mother, let alone one with that family situation, and put her on the national campaign trail a thousand miles from home. She'll have to wait for the next cycle.
14. No Dynasties: No Jeb Bush, no Liddy Dole. The American people are just ready to move on, at least for now; McCain needs a second different name on his ticket, after the GOP running a Bush or Dole on the national ticket in every election since 1976.
15. No Affirmative Action Candidates: With Obama or possibly Hillary as the opponent, there will be a lot of sentiment for McCain picking a female or minority-group running mate. All things being equal, that would be a great idea, and indeed the GOP has a number of candidates who at first blush would seem to meet one or another of the job requirements - but when you start ticking off the list above, most of the possible candidates fall by the wayside, at least for this election cycle until the next generation of candidates is ready.
If voters vote on identity politics instead of qualifications, McCain loses. His argument has to be that you don't vote for groups, you vote for people who can do the job. I'd love to see him with a non-white-male running mate, but if it's someone who doesn't seem to be qualified for the job, he'll just look like he's desperate to mimic the other side. And that's always a losing strategy.
Now, the Do's - none of these are as litmus-test critical as the Don'ts, but they are also important considerations:
1. Executive Experience: Successful presidential candidates almost always have it - but McCain doesn't. It will help greatly if he has a running mate who can demonstrate the ability to run something larger than a Senate Committee.
2. Outside the Beltway: Like #1, this points to a Governor: Washington's unpopular right now, moreso even than usual; bringing in someone untainted by the current mess in DC will help, even if it's someone like Mark Sanford who was once a Congressman years ago.
3. Swing Stater: Historically, it's hard to measure the impact of a VP choice, but it's generally thought that a candidate who is popular in his or her home state can help deliver that state, and in a closely divided election, swinging a single mid-size state can be a big plus. That argues in favor of Portman (Ohio) or Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, and against Sanford or against candidates from deep blue states like California or Rhode Island. On the other hand, while I'm in the camp that thinks the GOP has had trouble with the perception outside the South that the party has become too Southern, I think McCain is sufficiently non-Southern himself that he doesn't need to avoid a Southerner (and might even benefit from one).
4. Yes, It's The Economy: Historically, McCain hasn't been at his best addressing economic issues; it would help a lot to have a running mate who can talk about bread-and-butter issues with credibility and persuasiveness, rather than taking another national security professional.
One odder consideration that has focused attention on Mitt Romney in particular is the issue of money, of which McCain has far less than Obama. But as Brad Smith has explained, with public financing McCain should actually be in good shape for the general election campaign after the conventions, so the money issue is more time-sensitive - he needs cash now.
I'll get back another day to who this leaves as alternatives, but if you are guessing that I think Sanford and Pawlenty remain the logical frontrunners, the only two guys who really sweep through all the check boxes unscathed, you are right - but while I wasn't ready to back Romney as a presidential candidate, he also should not be ruled out of the veepstakes, as there's no one consideration that really knocks him out, either.
UPDATE: Jim Geraghty likes Carcieri. I'm definitely leanining towards him as one of the top candidates despite his age (he's 65, not 66 as I said above).