As the two major party presidential choices get closer to announcing their Vice Presidential selections, John McCain is coming under a lot of fire from various quarters about his possible choices and allegiances. McCain has always been suspected of being less conservative than his record would indicate, and recent actions have made the far right and religious conservatives increasingly nervous about his intentions.
First he enraged pro-life conservatives by letting his staff leak the news that pro-choice moderate Tom Ridge was a top contender for the VP slot. This prompted the reprehensible Richard Viguerie to issue a an open letter to McCain which said:
“Your apparent interest in selecting a running mate who is out of sync ideologically with the vast majority of conservatives reinforces the image of the Republican Party as a party without principle and dedicated to one proposition above all others – the seeking, acquiring, obtaining, and holding onto power.”
Making very clear as a self-appointed spokesman for moralistic conservatives that any more moderate running mate would be unacceptable to at least his small faction, even if his grandiose claim that the vast majority of conservatives share his views may be overstated.
In his letter Viguerie also restates the fear that McCain might pick his politically confused ally Senator Joe Lieberman as a running mate to expand his centrist base. McCain has given very little indication that he would do this, but he has certainly been accepting of Lieberman’s support and has now gone even farther by offering Lieberman a speaking slot at the Republican Convention, presumably hoping to repeat the devastating impact of Zell Miller’s appearance four years ago.
These developments raise a lot of questions about McCain’s choices and allegiances, not just for extremists like Viguerie, but also for mainstream Republicans who want to see McCain make a good choice for the Vice Presidency. McCain’s continued reliance on Joe Lieberman may be excusable, so long as it is purely a case of using Lieberman for political advantage to suck up as many Democrat and independent votes as possible and then throwing him away. Almost everyone in the Republican party hates Lieberman. He’s too conservative for Republican moderates, too much of a statist and imperialist for libertarian Republicans and apparently Viguerie and his friends on the religious right hate him too, though I can’t figure out exactly why. Lieberman’s main value is that he really irritates the far left, and that makes him a rallying point for political moderates who are more reactive than analytical. Yet any reliance on Lieberman raises the everpresent specter that Lieberman might have some ongoing role in a McCain administration and no one finds that idea very appealing.
The rumors about Tom Ridge are also troubling for more than just the extreme religious right. Ridge seems like a nice fellow, but he’s an extraordinarily poor choice as a running mate. He has too much in common with McCain, an undistinguished record as a legislator, and although he did fairly well as governor of Pennsylvania, his career since then and his time as head of the Department of Homeland Security and close association with Bush are nothing to get excited over. Ridge’s main claim to fame is his outstanding record in Vietnam, which has largely driven the rest of his career. Ridge’s greatest shortcoming is that he doesn’t have a constituency. Even Lieberman has a fan base. Ridge has none. He’s not moderate enough or well known enough to draw votes from moderates and independents, and his pro-choice position alienates extreme conservatives.
The real question is why has McCain chosen to be so closely and blatantly associated with Ridge and Lieberman at this critical point in the campaign. The only answer which makes sense seems to be that it’s being done deliberately as a sort of smokescreen to mask his real Vice Presidential pick and a scare tactic to remind the religious right how much worse things could be for them. It may also be intended to send them the message that there are a lot more moderate votes to be won than conservative ones, so they ought to toe the line. Of course, when McCain makes his announcement and it isn’t Ridge or Lieberman those who doubted him will embrace him out of pure relief or because they feel that their influence caused him to change his mind. If this is his strategy it shows a level of clever ruthlessness among McCain’s campaign advisers which is sort of encouraging.
Looking past all the furor and cries of outrage and political posturing, it seems likely that the one thing we can be sure of is that McCain’s Vice President absolutely will not be Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman. Playing these games keeps the McCain campaign in the news and keeps people arguing about it, and that makes it exciting and builds suspense and is what has gotten McCain to an unexpected virtual tie with Obama in the polls. It’s certainly way more interesting than Obama’s inevitable drifting towards the unavoidable choice of Evan Bayh (the nicest white guy in America) as his running mate. So bravo to McCain and his advisers for realizing what Americans want out of a presidential campaign — entertainment.