The Republican Party’s identity struggle was only partially resolved with the choice of Sen. John McCain as its nominee for 2008. Just six months before he prevailed in the chase for the nomination, McCain had been given up for dead as a candidate. Respected as a war hero, understood as an independent man given to straight talk but sometimes unorthodox policy positions, McCain was nonetheless the first choice of few in his party. Today, in order for his candidacy to succeed, few issues matter more than McCain’s own first choice: who should be his running mate?
The short answer is that Senator McCain should pick someone who reflects and reinforces his strengths but who also accomplishes something the GOP primary proved incapable of achieving: uniting the party’s economic, social and foreign policy wings. Right now, a few scars are still visible from the difficult primary and caucus battle waged within the GOP. That battle was difficult but it wasn’t trivial. The Republican rivals disagreed about major issues like immigration, global warming, the right to life, the need for a federal marriage amendment, and tax policy. The points in dispute had a pedigree, with a history of party leaders and candidates trying to downplay one or more of the issues, typically the social conservative topics that actually fuel a majority of the GOP base.
Couple that with the disappointing performance of Congressional Republicans over the past several years, and disillusionment and demoralization have proved irresistible for many at the grassroots. Quick; name any major piece of social conservative legislation the Congress passed after 2002. It’s tough to do, and even tougher in that dark period between 2004 and 2006 when the reputation of Congress became more associated with out-of-control earmarks and sexual abuse of pages than with significant pieces of legislation. Despite its sway over Congress, the GOP majority was unable to pass a ban on human cloning, the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act (to keep minors from being shipped across state lines to have clandestine abortions), a permanent child tax credit, or social security reform.
Instead of a post-election-loss course correction the newly minted GOP minority in 2007 continued down the same path. Earmark reform faltered, Congress continued to spend beyond the nation’s means, good judges were stymied, and the Democratic majority dallied with such salient needs as protecting transgenders in the workplace and nationalizing U.S. oil companies, all with tepid GOP response.
In fact, John McCain’s reputation rests, in large part, on his ability to distinguish himself from the morass of profligacy and ethical lapses in Congress and Washington generally. He has resolutely opposed earmarks and the narrow scavenging for votes and personal advantage they represent. He led the fight to bring Jack Abramoff to earth and to end the sullying of Congress’s reputation as a place where influence peddling had become so brazen it was no longer even an art form. He helped devise the surge that has carried the United States close to victory in Iraq. While his policy solutions, like McCain-Feingold, sometimes only compounded the problems, his revulsion at the buying and selling of Congressional votes like a day at the bazaar was commendable.
These issues, partly because of McCain’s own mixed success as a legislator, are not enough, however, to carry him beyond the role of an image-changer. There is a deeper policy vision that has carried conservatives to success in the past, and this vision too was offended by the practices represented by people like Don Young and Ted Stevens. McCain’s choice of a running mate must tap that deeper vision. The conservative vision not only believes in an economically free, militarily secure, and values-strong America, it believes that each of these “legs of the stool” requires the others in order to endure.
WHO, THEN, EMBODIES this vision and completes Senator McCain’s distinguished service career, ethical integrity, and understanding of our dangerous world? The good news is that he has a deep bench of options, men and women who embody both his reformist streak and a deep commitment to smaller government, national defense, the sanctity of human life, and marriage and family. It may say something that if I were to name names that fit this profile, I might not be helping their chances. That would be the case if the McCain campaign comes to believe, falsely, that capturing “moderate” voters means abandoning conservatives and their ideals. On the contrary, many voters today call themselves independent because they no longer believe the GOP has the will to contest the historical inevitability arguments made by liberals.
I can, however, suggest the character of the person McCain should be seeking. He could pick a member of Congress, of either House, but not one who is associated with the do-nothing era just past or the dismissal of scandals that rankled voters but barely ruffled many House leaders. He has a number of GOP governors to choose from, who are diverse in age, ethnic background, sex, and region (including outside the lower 48), but united in a deep commitment to defend the homeland, protect the family, and clean house. He has several rivals who ran well in the party primaries who could bring fresh support to his ticket.
In short, John McCain won the GOP nomination not just as the last man standing, but as a man standing on his own two feet. Conservatives are looking for that type of leadership, but it must be unified leadership, one that embraces and demonstrates a conservative vision that can hold the conservative movement and the nation together not just at a time of war but a time of renewed opportunity and freedom. In its own way, in today’s superficial media environment, taking a bold step and picking a thoroughgoing conservative is just what a maverick would do.