So it’s getting close to crunch time. John McCain by now should be cutting down his big field of vice presidential contenders to a short list of six to eight names. To stay a step ahead of him, then, in order to make sure our criteria and our favorites at least make the cut, we on the outside should be explaining how the candidate should be reaching his final choice.
Without further ado, then, as the final entry of seven columns on the subject (see here, and the links within in for the others), after five months of studying the subject and adjusting for developments, here’s my final word on how McCain’s campaign team should conduct the process of eliminationâ€¦.
First, I would adopt entirely the judgment of National Review‘s John J. Miller, who explained why Joe Lieberman, Tom Ridge, Charlie Crist and Mike Huckabee should definitely not be McCain’s running mate. All that needs adding is that if Huckabee is the choice, his shortcomings on ethics, economics, and character should make conservatives seriously consider active opposition to the McCain candidacy.
That said, here’s a caveat: All criticisms of the following potential choices should be understood as nitpicking, because even a mention in this final list means I consider them to be admirable leaders and politically strong candidates. (An asterisk* means these are names that haven’t appeared in my previous six columns on the subject.)
*Choice #15. U.S. Rep. Candice Miller: The third-term Michigan congresswoman ordinarily wouldn’t pass the test of relevant experience, except that she has been in public office of one sort or another for 28 years, with her impressive local-office background giving her a good feel for the daily concerns of the American public. With Michigan shaping up as perhaps the single most important battleground state this year, McCain absolutely must be impressed that Miller carried every county in the state in her re-election campaign for Secretary of State, winning by an astonishing one million votes.
Choice #14. Fred Thompson: The former Tennessee senator actually wouldn’t be bad, despite his poor performance in the primaries. He would satisfy conservatives without scaring anybody anywhere; he has shown an ability to do extremely well in debates when he concentrates; and he would reinforce the idea that the McCain ticket means the country would be in safe hands under tough, seasoned leaders.
Choice #13. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal: He is the conservative rising star in this nation, and for good reason. Jindal is the real deal. But fergoshsakes, the guy really does need some seasoning. He has never stayed in any one job long enough — much less an elective political post — to be required to fight off a backlash by bad-ol’-boys who have had time to re-mobilize against him. And he still comes across, in a way Barack Obama doesn’t, as really young. Finally, the national press will be chomping at the bit to turn a few quirks from his admirable social conservatism into something that comes across as a little too extreme and weird.
Choice #12. U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint: The South Carolinian is one of the leading conservative reformers in the Senate. Extremely bright and principled, he would immediately energize the conservative base. But McCain needs no help in South Carolina, and a fellow senator might not be the best answer in this strongly anti-Washington year.
Choice #11. U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn: Substitute “Oklahoman” for “South Carolinian,” and every word of the DeMint explanation applies here.
Choice #10. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford: Another superb conservative reformer, he rates higher than DeMint because of his executive experience. But he’s quirky enough to make McCain nervous, and he had a disastrous performance last Sunday with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
Choice #9. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty: His conservatism on economics has been brought into doubt, and polls show Minnesota less likely for McCain to pick off than had earlier been supposed. Plus, every time I watch Pawlenty on TV I am struck by the impression that while he comes across pleasantly enough, five minutes later I can never remember a single point he made. He just doesn’t have the “presence” required. On the other hand, he seems perfectly safe and his Midwesternness can’t hurt — plus, McCain seems to really like him personally, so the synergy between them might play well politically.
Choice #8. U.S. Sen. John Thune: Ordinarily the arguments against DeMint and Coburn would work doubly strongly against somebody from lightly populated South Dakota, but Thune has the air of a giant-killer after knocking off Democratic leader Tom Daschle in 2004, plus he has the look and bearing of a leader.
Choice #7. Mitt Romney: The former Massachusetts governor is all the buzz right now — just as about four other people previously were the flavors du jour of the chattering classes. His strengths — business acumen/facility with economic topics, name recognition, executive experience, potential help in his native Michigan — are considerable. But he doesn’t seem to have the “common touch,” he is still heavily doubted by numerous conservatives (especially Evangelicals), and (unless there has been a recent change I missed) he has some of the worst favorable-vs.-unfavorable ratings among the general public of any national candidate this year.
Choice #6. Rob Portman: Former aide to the senior Bush, former congressman from Ohio, former U.S. Trade Representative and Budget chief under the current Bush, Portman gets high marks from just about everybody for his solidity, his intellect, and his personal decency. He actually fits the journalistic cliche of being “widely respected.” On the other hand (at the risk of giving away my higher choices), he adds less to the ticket on all fronts than a fellow Ohioan to be mentioned later on this list, and is probably too closely identified as a Bush family man.
Choice #5. U.S. Rep. Mike Pence: Few people in the country would make the conservative movement happier than this Indianan as Veep. He combines the thoughtfulness and solid principles of the think-tank leader he once was with the media savvy of the onetime radio talk-show host he also once was. His Midwesternness is an asset, although Indiana ordinarily should be as safe for Republicans as South Carolina. But if Obama puts Indiana into play by choosing Indiana’s U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh for his ticket, and if internal polls show that Pence can help keep that state safe whereas Bayh otherwise could steal it from McCain, then Pence should go to the very top of the list.
Choice #4. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan: A brilliant rising star who worked for Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp before, at the young age of 38, rising all the way to the GOP’s ranking membership on the Budget Committee, Ryan could help McCain bolster his economic credentials. He has proposed the best comprehensive economic plan any conservative has seen in years. Plus, if he can bring his native Wisconsin into play, Ryan could produce huge political dividends for the ticket.
*Choice #3, on an ascending rocket. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft: The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank this week meant to be at least a little snarky when writing about Ashcroft, but his lead sentence actually had very much the ring of truth: “The rehabilitation of John David Ashcroft has been a wonder to behold.” A loyal footsoldier hung out to dry by the Bush administration after willingly acting as its chief spear-catcher, the former Missouri senator endured brutal treatment by an ignorant and horribly biased establishment media. But the truth is now coming out, so that the same media, joined by liberal Democrats such as John Conyers, are rightly portraying Ashcroft in almost heroic terms, especially because of his now-famous hospital-bed refusal to be bullied into improper actions by Alberto Gonzales. The fact is that Ashcroft’s Justice Department was a model of professionalism and attention to constitutional detail, and his two-term governorship and term in the Senate were both impressive. No single choice by McCain could so energize the religious right without turning off economic and foreign policy conservatives; nobody could boast a fuller resume; and very few are as smart or, frankly, as personable when allowed to make his own case rather than being forced to twist in the wind by White House overlords. Give Ashcroft free rein, and he’ll soon dispel the caricature of him as a right-wing scold and recapture his true, middle-America persona.
Choice #1A. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Chris Cox: I’ve made the case for Cox plenty of time, and he remains superbly qualified on all levels, terrific on TV, and a continuing favorite of conservatives, especially when more attention is given to his long-ago column criticizing the liberal Supreme Court in the Wall Street Journal (“The Sad Career of the Reagan Justices,” July 1, 1992). The column contained this passage that, in the context of being written by somebody representing socially liberal California, should energize pro-life forces: Justice O’Connor’s role in crafting the abortion decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, was predictable, but it was surprising that Justices Kennedy and Souter joined her. For those who have long believed that Roe v. Wade was bad constitutional law… the decision they propounded was especially disappointing. Cox is hurt a little because his dual home states of California and Minnesota now seem less in reach for McCain, and he has been hurt by unjust blame for the Bear Stearns collapse and for market volatility — but he also suddenly looks like a hero again because his newly announced rule against naked short selling launched a huge and immediate market rally this week. If the McCain team would make the effort to create a good narrative template to introduce Cox to the public along the successful John Roberts model (which Cox fits perfectly), and if Cox would more aggressively become a spokesman for the wise economic policies that his record shows he clearly supports, he could be a huge boon to the ticket.
Choice #1. Former House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich: More and more, the Pennsylvania native and former Ohio congressman looks like, all things considered, the wisest choice. Compare Kasich to his fellow Ohioan, Portman. Kasich’s credentials are more Reaganite, while Portman is heavily tied to the unpopular Bush. Kasich helped lead the fight to balance the budget; Portman was OMB Director when the deficit was huge. Kasich represented a tougher (less Republican) district in Ohio than Portman did and is more likely to attract swing voters in that state — plus in his native Pennsylvania, too. And Kasich’s blue-collar persona is far more likely to attract Reagan Democrats than would Portman. (A friend of mine who works in Portman’s Cincinnati office building and often rides the elevator with him said, perhaps unfairly, that Portman strikes him as “somebody who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”) Plus, through his regular host position at Fox News and his popular books, Kasich starts out with higher name recognition than do most people on this whole list. Plus, he left Congress while it still had a reformist bent and many successes to point to, before it fell into disrepute.
FRANKLY, IF I WERE RUNNING the McCain campaign, I’d still go with Cox. But I’d be running a different style of campaign than they seem to be. If I were to advise the McCain campaign how best to take advantage of the sort of campaign they seem intent on running, I’d tell them Kasich’s the man — unless Obama picks Bayh (see Pence) or unless Ashcroft looks, upon close inspection, to offer the best answer to McCain supporters’ lack of enthusiasm without causing a loss of independent-voter support.
Conservative thinker extraordinaire Michael Novak has made a good case for Kasich, and Novak is a very wise man. When Kasich is examined in light of both qualifications and of political advantages, the more you look, the more you like.