In the aftermath of Barack Obama’s uninspiring choice of Joe Biden as his running mate, I have to face the question of whether John McCain will do any better with his Vice Presidential selection.
For Obama Biden was a safe, relatively non-controversial and uninspiring choice. He’s not remarkable enough to challenge Obama’s legitimacy and he was clearly willing to grovel for the job. He probably won’t stir up much controversy or much excitement either. He’s a low risk surrogate for Hillary Clinton, with a similar stand on the issues, perfect for balancing Obama’s radicalism and inexperience while not being threatening as Clinton would have been. He was such a perfectly bland choice that in the latest Gallup poll, despite the hoopla of the Democratic convention, Obama dropped behind McCain for the first time since the election started, trailing 44% to 46%.
For McCain the equivalent to Obama’s choice of Biden would be to pick Mitt Romney. Romney has led the race in groveling and fawning and is clearly desperate for the job. He also balances McCain’s perceived lack of executive and economic experience. He’s a seemingly obvious, safe choice. He’s also even more of a potential liability for McCain than Biden is for Obama. Hard though it may be to believe to outsiders, bland and well-coifed Romney is a divisive figure for many in the GOP. He’s seen as an opportunist who changes his views with the wind, and who has advocated relatively moderate positions on key issues like abortion and gay marriage which trouble the religious elements within the party who already suspect McCain of having similar leanings. He’s also seen as a big business and big government politician with elitist roots which make the more populist and reactionary elements of the party enraged.
Worse than his negative perception within the party is Romney’s blandness and obviousness. He doesn’t bring with him a core constituency which McCain doesn’t already have well in hand. He appeals to the same moderates, independents and crossover Democrats who McCain has relied on as his constituency. He doesn’t do anything to add energy or ‘wow factor’ to the ticket. The most exciting things about him are his hair and his noble chin. McCain might be comfortable with Romney’s politics, but if you want to run a really effective campaign you need something more than comfort. You need excitement.
McCain ought to be considering candidates who are unexpected. He ought to look to the example of William McKinley who wiser heads in the party forced to take on a young and unexpected running mate. McKinley was boring and McCain is boring. McCain needs a Teddy Roosevelt as much as McKinley did. Rather than showing weakness as Obama did by picking Biden, McCain should show strength by picking someone exciting and dynamic, demonstrating confidence that his own stature and substance cannot be challenged by a younger and more interesting running mate.
McCain also ought to be looking at people who will draw in elements of the party who are looking for a greater role. There is an impending struggle in the party between the small but vocal factions of religious conservatives and liberty republicans and McCain should reach out to one of those factions to expand his base within the party. Picking the right Vice President is an easy way to do that.
Obviously I’m not going to advocate picking some troglodytic religious fanatic, though I admit it might be a good strategy. I’m with the other guys. McCain could win a lot of support in the liberty-oriented part of the GOP by picking someone like South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford or Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. They also carry the benefit of being governors rather than legislators, adding a component of executive and state government experience to the Republican ticket with Obama/Biden lacks. He could even win a lot of approval by picking Jeff Flake, the most libertarian member of Congress. Some might even argue that failed paleoconservative candidate Ron Paul might fit the bill. Of these choices Mark Sanford is probably the best. He has the most experience and the most established reputation. He even has some crossover popularity with religious conservatives.
These are the kinds of candidates McCain ought to be looking at. They’re young and dynamic leaders who would give his ticket a burst of energy which tired old Joe Biden certainly can’t match. Is McCain brave enough to consider them? His campaign has been very good at muddying the waters around their VP choice, so it might actually be a possibility. McCain’s reputation as a ‘maverick’ would certainly be reinforced by such a creative choice, just as it would suffer from a pedestrian choice like Romney. It’s time for McCain and the GOP to have some balls and do something unexpected. That’s the only way they’re going to win this election. This choice is a make or break test for McCain to see if he can do soemthing clever and gutsy or if he’s just another hack who plays it safe. A lot of Republicans are waiting to be inspired. Let’s hope he doesn’t let us down.