Political Hay

Pennsylvania Conservatives Say No to Ridge

McCain creates a furor among those he needs to win state.

By 8.18.08

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Well.

One has to wonder what the McCain campaign is thinking when they do something like this.

The subject: Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge as a potential McCain running mate, a trial balloon floated by McCain himself over at the Weekly Standard. Here's the quote, as reported by Stephen Hayes: "I think that the pro-life position is one of the important aspects or fundamentals of the Republican Party," McCain said. " And I also feel that -- and I'm not trying to equivocate here -- that Americans want us to work together. You know, Tom Ridge is one of the great leaders and he happens to be pro-choice. And I don't think that would necessarily rule Tom Ridge out."

Let it be said as a Pennsylvanian who first met then-Congressman Ridge years ago he is a very accomplished guy, and a nice guy to boot. A Vietnam vet, bootstrapped up from Erie with a stop at Harvard. He is smart and talented and a genuine American patriot. None of that is at issue.

What is at issue in any discussion of his vice-presidential prospects is his record as a Congressman and governor of Pennsylvania, as well as his tenure as the first Secretary of Homeland Security. Along with this is the notion being floated in some McCain circles that Ridge's presence on the ticket would help carry the state.

"This would be the last straw," snapped one astonished Pennsylvania conservative who had read of McCain's remarks. There would be "a conservative explosion," said another.

BUT WHY? What's the antipathy from Pennsylvania conservatives to a McCain-Ridge ticket? The answers came quickly. Brisk, passionate -- and off the record. Tom Ridge is still the home state guy, and he is well liked. Not agreed with, however.

"First and foremost, Ridge is pro-abortion," said one leader. As McCain acknowledges, this is indeed a big deal. Pennsylvania conservatives, not unlike their counterparts around the country, are all too well aware of the power accorded modern day vice presidents. They are acutely aware that the presence of a Vice President Ridge, replete with West Wing staff and allies he would place throughout a McCain administration, would in fact be in a position to influence the choice of nominees for the federal district and federal appeals courts. To put these selections within a country mile of a well-known pro-choice advocate would ignite a virtual cultural war within the GOP. Yes, they think McCain himself would be involved with any Supreme Court nominations, presumably sending bona fide conservatives in the mold of a Roberts, Scalia, Alito or Thomas to the Court. But the drive to populate the lower ranks of the federal bench with conservative jurists, a project begun by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III in the Reagan-era, could easily come to a screeching halt.

This in turn brought out another acid observation of Ridge's record as a Congressman during the Reagan years. Ridge, said one heated activist, "cast one of the highest percentage votes against President Reagan of any member of Congress when he was there." Not to be forgotten were the scathing remarks about what was said to be Ridge's lack of performance as the state's chief executive. Complaints poured forth about his "poor fiscal record as governor." While complaints focused on his support for a legislative pay raise and pension increase, funding for sports stadiums and that his government spending habits were barely different from either his Democratic predecessor (the late Robert P. Casey) or Democratic successor (current Governor Ed Rendell), the heart of the criticism focused on what was said to be Ridge's decidedly un-Reaganite approach to government in general.

"Tom Ridge is the personification of the status quo in government," said this incensed young conservative. "In that sense he isn't even a McCain, who at least can claim he has made serious efforts at reform. Ridge comes back in here from time to time and supports his establishment status quo cronies. He is not even close to being a conservative reformer." For good measure, Ridge's performance as the first Secretary of Homeland Security was mentioned. "He's the guy that was responsible for setting up FEMA before Katrina hit. You don't think the Democrats have that one all researched?"

Um. OK. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

WHAT ABOUT THE IDEA that Ridge's presence on the ticket could help carry Pennsylvania for McCain?

"Yes," said one leader. "He could. But McCain can carry Pennsylvania without him. And what does his presence say to conservatives in other states? Like Ohio?"

"What will happen, " said another, "is that it will be a wash. Those who vote for McCain because of Ridge will be canceled out by those who refuse to vote or vote for [Libertarian nominee] Bob Barr."

All of this, of course, was off the record. Not only is Ridge well liked personally, there is little interest in hurting McCain, particularly as Obama comes more clearly into focus. There were conservative leaders who professed to having stuck with McCain even when his campaign seemed to be imploding in 2007.

Yet there is an acute realization that a running mate for a prospective 71-yea-old president is in more than even the usual position of a vice president to be the future leader of the Republican Party. "This is so frustrating to hear this," said the first person I spoke with, speaking of a Ridge nomination. He cited McCain's problems with the conservative base, saying that the vice-presidential nomination was "the way to bring the conservative base on board." To give the slot to Ridge would "do exactly the opposite."

So who should it be, was my next question. Who would serve as a solid conservative vice president and a potential future leader of the conservative movement? This received all around the litany of names that are repeatedly mentioned in the press. Romney. Pawlenty. Jindal. Thune. Others. Interestingly, Romney seemed to be the favorite, although not overwhelmingly so.

THIS IS A REMARKABLE moment in the history of the modern conservative movement. The movement's stunning success over the last four decades has only suffered as candidates or office holders stray perceptibly from the principles of fiscal, national security and social conservatism to which voters have overwhelmingly responded. Certainly it is always in need of new leaders.

The selection of someone who would not simply be an influential vice president but a potential president is viewed as no small matter. It is well noted that the presidency of George W. Bush would presumably have never occurred had Ronald Reagan selected Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt (Nancy Reagan's choice) or then-New York Congressman Jack Kemp (a much-favored conservative choice) instead of Reagan's defeated opponent, George H.W. Bush. Had there been no Vice President Bush, goes the thinking, there would have been no Governor Bush and President Bush 43.

This particular vice-presidential choice, in short, is seen as a very big deal indeed. It can continue the conservative revolution, both in January of 2009 and well into the future, or bring what amounts to a continual state of open internal political warfare between a McCain-Ridge White House and the core constituency at its base. Having seen this dynamic of personnel and policy at work in the Ford-Rockefeller White House (which eventually produced the 1976 Reagan challenge and ended in a Jimmy Carter victory) and the Bush 41 White House (producing a Pat Buchanan challenge and a loss to Bill Clinton), there is no enthusiasm for seeing the same dynamics unfold all over again.

At the end of which lies a President Hillary Clinton.

And what if the Ridge for VP trial balloon is in fact not a trial balloon but the real deal?

"We're done," came the instant response about support for McCain from one of the above conservatives. "We're done."

Not good.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.