Streetcar Line

Who Wants to Be a Vice President?

A guide for John McCain as he looks for a running mate.

By 2.13.08

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The topic du jour among the conservative chattering classes is the question of who will emerge as best choice to be John McCain's running mate. The question is best approached first by forgetting about all the names and instead focusing on the qualities for which McCain ought to be looking. As is often the case, some of the conventional wisdom about who he should pick seems terribly misguided.

First, consider what McCain should not look for. Among those irrelevant considerations is a high profile. Nobody, absolutely nobody, is less in need of a running mate with a huge name or a big personality than John McCain is. McCain is so well known, and his "brand" so familiar, and his personality so seared into the public consciousness already that if he chooses a political rock star he will just overload the public's senses.

McCain should not move left with his choice. Some in the media see certain secretaries of state or Democratic senators or "moderate" GOP governors as ideal choices -- but they are wrong. What McCain needs, in order to free himself up to thrust and parry with the Democratic nominee, is somebody who can spend all his (or her) campaign time tending to restless conservatives.

McCain himself, by virtue of his history and personality, only annoys a lot of conservative voters. Trying to convince those anti-McCainites otherwise would be a waste of time, and perhaps positively counterproductive. Instead, McCain needs to be free to be McCain (for better or worse), while a solidly conservative running mate works the conservative vineyards.

The senator should not show weakness with his choice. Choosing a running mate from an overwhelmingly "red" state -- unless that running mate brings something else incredibly special to the ticket -- would be interpreted as a sign that McCain isn't even confident of his geographic base. The Deep South, then, is not the best place to find a Veep. Neither is Oklahoma or Wyoming or Idaho, unless the choice brings something else so impressive to the table as to amount to a strategic coup of the first order.

Finally, McCain should not choose anybody who weakens his party's tenuous hold on what power it still enjoys. He should not choose a senator whose home-state governor is a Democrat, nor should he choose a governor whose lieutenant governor is a Democrat, as both would likely result in a loss for the Republican Party.

SO WHAT QUALITIES are important? The most essential quality is a patently obvious ability to handle the job of president. Not to be morbid, but McCain is a 71-year-old man who has survived torture and several bouts of cancer. Voters will want assurance that the Veep could step in at a moment's notice.

Related to this is the running mate's relative youth. McCain shouldn't choose anybody much over 60. Voters don't like instability. The thought of one candidate over 70 might be acceptable, but the thought of two candidates past retirement age might just seem too risky.

The candidate ought also to be well rounded. McCain, by his own admission, has always focused on defense and foreign policy. A veep ought to also be well versed in those areas, but he needs to show some real expertise on domestic issues as well, in order to shore up McCain's weaknesses there. Moreover, the running mate ought to have a resume that doesn't say he's a fulltime conventional politician. At least one item on the resume should say that this somebody who isn't just a political climber but a doer.

It is preferable, but not entirely necessary, for the running mate to have some executive experience, whether inside government or out. This will be the first election ever that has featured one senator against another. Why? Because voters usually like executive leadership. McCain, despite his heroism, doesn't have that. Being a squadron leader 40-some years ago doesn't count. Plus, as McCain's persona is that of maverick, he more than anybody needs to be balanced with somebody accustomed to hierarchy and management.

The VP nominee needs to be more "cool" than "hot." McCain seems to want to reach through the TV screen and shake sense into the viewer. He needs to be balanced by a calm voice of reason.

McCain also needs somebody solid on all three legs of the conservative stool, somebody who the conservative media and intelligentsia will universally recognize as a legitimate conservative of solid principles and temperament -- so those opinion leaders can reassure the voters that the choice is a wise one.

(With few exceptions, the choices will be unfamiliar to most of the public, so the idea isn't to get somebody whose name along brings votes but rather somebody who can quickly be made acceptable to the "base" -- much as John Roberts and Sam Alito were quickly accepted even though probably 95 percent of the nation had never heard of them before their high court nominations.)

The running mate also needs to be somebody who the establishment (liberal) media respect, that they won't immediately write off as a bomb-thrower. And superb brains would be nice, since McCain's image is all brawn. Being articulate and telegenic will be important, too, especially if Obama is the opponent.

DESPITE THE "NEW" conventional wisdom that says the success of the veep choices of Al Gore and Dick Cheney have shown that geographic and other more traditional political considerations no longer matter, this is one example of the older conventional wisdom being right.

McCain ought to choose somebody who can plausibly make him at least competitive in a state or region or constituency where he otherwise would not be. This does not mean that McCain should expect the veep to definitely carry a particular state -- too many variables come into play for there to be guarantees -- but that the running mate should at least make the Democrats fight for a place or constituency, or fight harder than they otherwise would to win it. The Democrats ought to be made to spend resources defending turf they otherwise would easily own.

Oh, and one more thing: The choice ought to be ethically above reproach, and a clear reformer. McCain's reputation for straight talk and principled stands is likely to come under attack in the fall. The last thing he needs is a running mate whose own record isn't beyond reproach.

So there you have it: McCain needs a solidly "full-spectrum" conservative, reformist, youngish, cool, well-rounded, brainy, all-media-respected, articulate, telegenic, border-state/constituency-challenging, non-party-weakening, executive-experienced, running mate who can handle the presidency at a moment's notice.

Good luck to McCain in finding such a candidate. The good news, amazingly enough, is that there are several potential running mates who fit the bill. I'll save their identities for another occasion.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.