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Veep! Veep! The McCain Possibilities

A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Almost a year ago, the Crystal Ball took a first crack at listing the vice presidential possibilities in both parties. The list has held up surprisingly well. But the justifications for various candidacies have changed, and now that we know John McCain will make the choice, it's time for reconsideration. (We'll await the unofficial crowning of the Democratic nominee to play this game on the Democratic side, unless Democrats keep the game tied through the spring. Our discipline can only last so long.)

Let's start by revising and extending our earlier remarks, and asking the most important question. Ideally, what does a presidential candidate need in a VP ticket-mate? Here are the most important elements, and a second-banana nominee ought to meet most of these criteria:

  • The Veep should be relatively scandal-free, and cause no major problems at selection time and throughout the campaign. It's the Hippocratic Oath for VP candidates: First, do no harm.
  • The Veep ought to be able to carry his or her home state, or at least carry another sizeable state if he or she cannot win home state backing. If the person can't even do that, why in the world would you want that man or woman on the ticket? It would be nice if his/her state were competitive, or even unlikely to be won without the Veep nominee. Those are double electoral votes--votes put in your party's column which are taken directly from the other party's column.
  • The prior office experiences of the Veep should complement those of the presidential nominee --a Senator like McCain who has focused on foreign policy might want a Governor who knows domestic policy.
  • The Veep could help to reunite the party by being from another faction than the presidential candidate. McCain has problems with the conservative base, goes this theory, so he'll want to reassure conservatives with an acceptably conservative running-mate. There are limits, of course.
  • Contradicting the previous principle, maybe a relative moderate such as McCain may want to reinforce his appeal to Independents by choosing another moderate--calculating that most conservatives will inevitably back the GOP ticket for lack of alternatives. This follows the old dictum from Richard Nixon: Shift to the center to wage a successful general election fight. But there are considerable dangers, too, including the spawning of a conservative independent candidacy or a widespread decision by conservatives to "go fishing" on Election Day.
  • A regional balance can be helpful , though as the Clinton/Gore Arkansas-Tennessee combination in 1992 proved, it is not essential. And some regional balances, such as the 2004 Democratic ticket, don't work. What exactly did John Kerry get for his pick of Southerner John Edwards? Nada in the Electoral College. However, for McCain, a regional balance would send him to the Midwest, South, or Northeast for a Veep.
  • The Veep may be a symbolic choice --a woman, African-American, Hispanic/Latino, etc.--that captures the imagination of the electorate and the news media, and perhaps delivers an extra few percentage points among voters in the target group. McCain might want to balance the "historic" Democratic nomination of a black or woman with his own female, black, or Hispanic VP.
  • There ought to be some personal chemistry between the ticket-mates. They don't have to be best friends; it is probably better if they aren't. But the campaign and the administration to follow can be pure hell if the two are organizing warring camps on the trail and in the White House. As we've all heard, McCain has a bit of a temper, so maybe his Veep should be issued fire-resistant clothing. A friendly professional basis to the McCain-VP relationship would help to keep the ship of state on an even keel after some blow-ups.
  • While the bar isn't all that high if you consider the broad sweep of American political history, the Veep should be able to jump the one vital bar: Does the candidate appear potentially presidential in the eyes of the public and the press? This is critical in the case of John McCain's VP , given the fact that the 72-year-old McCain will be the oldest President ever elected, if he wins, and he has already had a serious bout with cancer.

Well, that little list ought to narrow the possibilities considerably! Clearly, no single McCain vice presidential pick could possibly meet all these standards, yet the presidential nominee will want to find the person who comes closest to completing the checklist.

All right, down to brass tacks--and a few brassy, tacky realities. In some year in the future, a House member might be chosen for VP. But we doubt it will be in 2008. Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana has been mentioned for McCain's ticket, for example, and he would be a salve for conservatives. But if McCain cannot carry the Hoosier State, he shouldn't be the nominee, and Pence is a complete unknown elsewhere. Could former Congressman J.C. Watts be a surprise choice? An African-American conservative from Oklahoma, Watts gained attention as part of the Gingrich House vanguard in the 1990s. He has since returned to the private sector, though he frequently appears as a pundit on CNN. Unquestionably, McCain is already guaranteed Oklahoma's electoral votes, but Watts could broaden the racial appeal of a party that often seems monochromatic.

Another former Congressman, Rob Portman of Ohio, is occasionally mentioned, too. Portman is a former U.S. trade representative for George W. Bush and his current director of the Office of Management and Budget. Bright and able, Portman could reinforce McCain's anti-pork barrel spending image. At the same time, Portman is now closely tied to Bush, and he is virtually unknown outside his old congressional district in Ohio. While Ohio is a key swing state, it's hard to imagine that Portman would really make much difference in the Buckeye State.

McCain has also mentioned major business executives for his Cabinet, and that's where they belong. Most are unused to the hothouse of the political spotlight; they have never been vetted in the way they would be by the campaign press and opposition; and they are used to having their way by fiat--which means they are thoroughly unprepared for the vice presidency.

The only other major source of VP nominees in the past has been the Cabinet. There's Condi Rice , and then there's...nobody--at least no one who is credible as a Veep for the GOP in '08. Rice would be an eye-popping choice--a checkmate for the Democrats in gender and racial identity politics who would also underline what McCain hopes will be the fundamental demarcation of the election, Iraq policy. This "surge squared" ticket would force the debate about Iraq and national security to the top of the campaign agenda. At the same time, this is extraordinarily risky, given the Iraq war's continuing unpopularity. Condi Rice also guarantees that any attempt by McCain to separate himself from the highly unpopular President George W. Bush will fail. Either Democrat will change McCain's first name from John to Bush (as in, "the Bush-McCain record".)

Rather than Rice, maybe McCain would be better off convincing General David Petraeus to resign his commission and join the GOP ticket. By all accounts, Petraeus has carried out his assignment brilliantly, and he deserves much of the credit for the surge's triumph. Unlike Rice, he cannot be held accountable for Bush's earlier Iraq policy failures, or any of the other Bush administration disasters. Judging by American history, voters consider skilled generals to be chief executive material. Former generals have run eleven times for the Presidency, and on seven occasions they won (George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, U.S. Grant, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and Dwight Eisenhower)--the best record (highest percentage of success) for any pre-White House background. At the same time, it should be noted that Petraeus is not a professional politician, has never been vetted by the media for that role, and may have no interest in entering the political arena.

Before we leave the Cabinet, let's also mention McCain pal Tom Ridge , the former Homeland Security Secretary in the Bush Administration. If McCain wants to target one large Northeastern state that might actually turn to the GOP, it would have to be Pennsylvania. Ridge is a popular former two-term Governor and Congressman from the Keystone State. He was on George W. Bush's Veep short list in 2000. Yes, he's a moderate and there would be more howls from the right-wing, but this distinguished Vietnam War veteran matches up with McCain in many ways, not least in the personal chemistry.

Occasionally, the presidential nominee decides to take the second-place finisher in his/her party's primaries for the second spot on the ticket. It's logical (Reagan-Bush 1980), it's useful since other presidential contenders have (supposedly) been vetted by the press, but it's still rare (jealousy, hard feelings, and all that). It's uncertain precisely how the vote and delegate totals on the GOP side will end up, but the official "silver medal" will either go to Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney . While either might be picked by McCain, neither appears to be a particularly good choice. Huckabee is disliked by some of the same activists who are uncomfortable with McCain, such as the tax-averse Club for Growth, and there may be better Southerners to match up with the Arizonan. Huckabee could also be overplaying his hand by staying in the race too long. There is no love lost between McCain and Romney, erstwhile and bitter opponents in the late contest. Romney's recent endorsement of McCain is more about Romney's next run for President in 2012 or 2016 than it is helping McCain.

Still another group of presidential candidates would be highly unlikely to take a VP offer, or be offered the post at all. Rudy Giuliani was a bust in Campaign '08, and McCain may be doing sufficiently well in New York State without the former NYC mayor. McCain and Giuliani also share various apostasies disliked by the Republican Right. Fred Thompson was once a friend of McCain, but he ran against him and didn't bother to endorse McCain as his campaign fizzled, when Thompson might have had some marginal impact. Newt Gingrich has far too much baggage, plus a solar personality that would burn the top man.

Gov. Haley Barbour of MS

Solid Southern conservative that could calm anxious GOP right-wing, sharp strategist, national reputation as ex-RNC Chair, understands the media.

Adds nothing electorally, may be too conservative for the country, has a mission to complete in post-Katrina MS.

Ex-FL Gov. Jeb Bush

Strong record as Governor, critical swing state, 100 percent name ID.

His last name is a giant problem, given that his brother is at around 30 percent in the polls. Especially if the Democrats do not nominate Hillary Clinton, the GOP would be stuck with all the negatives of the dynasty controversy.

Gov. Charlie Crist of FL

Made the most important endorsement of McCain this year, helping him to carry the critical FL primary, executive balance to McCain, would guarantee the Sunshine State for the GOP column.

Less than two years in gubernatorial office may not pass the ready-for-the-Presidency test, has been very moderate in some policies, such as environment; McCain is a natural for military-oriented FL, and he should be able to carry it himself.

Sen. Susan Collins of ME

Moderate-liberal, woman with centrist appeal, could put ME into play.

Social views would cause consternation among GOP conservatives, bad match for the moderate McCain, would likely cost the GOP a Senate seat since she is up this November.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole of NC

Stellar brand name in GOP, solid conservative, woman, wouldn't be controversial.

Adds little electorally, unexciting candidate, might cost the GOP a Senate seat since she is up in November.

Sen. Lindsay Graham of SC

McCain favorite, some centrist appeal, long legislative experience.

Adds nothing electorally, has irritated many conservatives on immigration just like McCain.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of TX

Solid conservative except on abortion, woman, long political experience, appeal in South plus West.

Adds little electorally, since McCain ought to be a lock here. Only Texan who could be on the ticket in '08 (sorry, Rick Perry and John Cornyn), but is the Bush-whacked Lone Star State out of the running totally this time? Too many memories of Crawford for the GOP's good.

Gov. Bobby Jindal of LA

Solid conservative credentials, long experience in government for one so young (36), clean & ethical record, Indian-American minority status.

Adds little electorally since McCain is presumed likely to carry LA, has just taken over as Governor and seems fully committed to that task.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of CT

Endorsed McCain early and campaigned hard for him, enraging Democrats; long Senate and foreign policy experience, hawk, could put CT in play, PR coup of having the 2000 Democratic VP nominee on ticket.

Liberal views on economic and social issues would be anathema to most in GOP and increase McCain's problems with the Right.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty of MN

Conservative with a Midwest twist, geographic and ideological balance for McCain, executive experience to balance McCain's legislative background, MN is a swing state, McCain favorite since Pawlenty was an early, loyal endorser.

Questionable whether he could carry Blue-tinged MN after weak 2006 reelection performance.

Gov. Sonny Perdue of GA

Solid conservative, Southern base, executive experience.

Perhaps too conservative for the country, adds nothing electorally that McCain wouldn't carry anyway.

Gov. Jodi Rell of CT

Liberal on social issues, woman, puts her state in play.

So liberal that McCain would be inviting a conservative independent challenge, and a GOP convention walk-out might occur.

Gov. Bob Riley of AL

Solid conservative, congressional and executive experience.

Gains McCain nothing electorally.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

Black, female, shifts focus of campaign even more to Iraq and foreign policy, 100 percent name ID.

Almost too much Iraq, and unlike McCain, who criticized the early Bush moves in Iraq, Rice owns all of the mistakes.

Gov. Mark Sanford of SC

Solid Southern conservative, executive and legislative experience, 2000 McCain backer.

Adds nothing electorally for McCain, mixed and controversial record in Palmetto State.

Sen. Gordon Smith of OR

Centrist appeal, could make OR competitive.

Too liberal for most in GOP, likely loss of his GOP Senate seat that is up in November.

Sen. Olympia Snowe of ME

Liberal who appeals to center, woman, long legislative experience, could put ME into play.

Too liberal for most in GOP, compounds McCain's right-wing problems.

Sen. John Thune of SD

Solid conservative, Midwest balance for McCain, good media image, youthful yet long congressional service.

Heft for the Presidency may be lacking, SD is no electoral powerhouse and guaranteed to McCain anyway.

Sen. George Voinovich of OH

Long executive and legislative experience, could be the best way for GOP to save the key swing state of Ohio.

A national unknown, somewhat quirky in Senate, same age as McCain (72), which is probably disqualifying given McCain's age and health history.

Counting McCain's former GOP presidential rivals, we've mentioned over two dozen possible Veep choices in this essay. This list does not include many other long-shots, such as Governors from heavily Republican states like Alaska ( Sarah Palin ) and Utah ( Jon Huntsman )--and as the nominations of Spiro Agnew (R-1968), Geraldine Ferraro (D-1984), and Dan Quayle (R-1988) prove, long-shots sometimes get nominated, even if they don't make much Electoral College sense. Huntsman was an early McCain backer, bucking his Mormon state's intense pro-Romney sentiments, and Palin is a straight-talking, wildly popular reformer whose instincts might appeal to McCain. Electorally, however, McCain would gain nothing from either pick.

What really strikes us is that, for John McCain, the pickings are relatively slim. The 2006 midterm election trimmed his possibilities considerably, and his ideological positioning and age further limit his choices.

Out of our various finalists, the preliminary top picks for McCain's VP nominee would appear to be (in alphabetical order): Haley Barbour, Charlie Crist, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Tim Pawlenty, and Condi Rice, with wild cards reserved for Joe Lieberman, David Petraeus, and Tom Ridge. None is a perfect match for McCain, but no Veep choice ever is for any presidential candidate. As long as there is no scandal, the VP nominee will fade into the background by October, too. It always happens that way, despite the media hubbub when the nominee is announced.

John McCain isn't called a maverick for nothing. It's possible he will throw all conventional thinking to the wind, and pick someone barely mentioned by the punditocracy. Wouldn't that be fun?

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