If one accepts that John McCain should pick a running mate with serious Reaganite credentials, the ability to step into the Oval Office at a moment’s notice if necessary (Lord forbid), and the ability to make the ticket at least competitive in a state, region, or constituency that otherwise might be off limits to a Republican, the question then becomes how his campaign should go about making the choice and introducing him to the nation.
The introduction is crucial, because it is absolutely not necessary that the choice be a household name already. The model should be the nomination of John Roberts for the Supreme Court. One day before his nomination, probably only a fraction of a percent of Americans had any idea who Roberts was, yet within about four days the choice was approved by a large majority of Americans polled. Somebody who can make a good first impression as a solid, thoughtful, intelligent, principled, and well-qualified choice will do just as well for the ticket as somebody already familiar to the public. Indeed, because familiarity breeds contempt, almost any household name will already have some “hard negatives” in the public consciousness, whereas the McCain campaign will have the chance to create and shape the narrative for somebody less well known.
Obviously, the first thing the campaign will do is a background check on about eight to ten possibilities. (If one of the potential choices already has been vetted by the FBI, as in the case of somebody who needed Senate confirmation within the past five years or so, that certainly would help!) This isn’t just a legal background check, but a political one. Even if the potential choice is superb in all other areas, does he have any votes or statements in his record that, while perfectly defensible or even wise, might cause a political headache when aired by a media hostile to conservatives? Does the possible Veep have political enemies worth worrying about?
Only after that due diligence should the next step come — and this is one that, as far as I know, has not been attempted before. By this time, the original short list will probably be down to about four — let’s say Chris Cox, Rob Portman, John Kasich , and Paul Ryan. A smart campaign will actually test the public attractiveness of these finalists. A straight poll won’t do: Again, these aren’t household names. Instead, what is needed is a series of focus groups (done as secretly as possible), where the group is shown actual footage of the Veep-to-be in a TV interview (culled from a Meet the Press appearance, or some such), along with the campaign’s tentative narrative of the candidate’s background and qualifications. Do the groups see it as a negative that Ryan is just 38 years old? Do they find Kasich’s sometimes manic energy endearing or annoying? Are they moved by the story of Cox’s horrible Jeep accident and recovery three decades ago?
Whoever the choice is, the campaign needs to test the message, the story, that it will present about the choice when he is named. As Chief Justice John Roberts showed, first impressions are of utmost importance.
THEN COMES THE hardest part: Making the introduction so that preferred narrative sticks. To do that, the narrative must be powerful. Let’s take my first choice, Chris Cox, as an example.
It won’t do for McCain to have a Washington press conference and say “here is my guy, Chris Cox, chairman of the SEC; here is his resume; okay, any questions?”
With Cox, McCain should introduce him in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, where Cox grew up, and make a big deal out of asking the national convention (held in Minneapolis) to ratify a local boy for the national ticket. Stress his Midwestern, Minnesota roots, while celebrating the fact that he went on from there to Harvard and southern California and Washington to do well in the larger world without ever losing his Midwestern values.
McCain should talk about how much he personally identifies with Cox’s experience of family tragedy when a child and from Cox’s horrendous, painful rehab from an injury as a young man (so reminiscent physically of McCain’s own injuries in Vietnam). McCain should stress Cox’s reformist record in Congress, his refusal to play the usual political games (but while doing so without losing the “Miss Congeniality” title that McCain himself jokes about having consistently lost), and Cox’s amazing record of forging unanimity on important committees Cox led at a time when Congress was otherwise known for vitriol and discord.
He should stress those committees — the first Homeland Security Committee, the Select Committee that reported on Chinese espionage, the Task Force on Budget Process reform — and also, as a nod to the tech-savvy and the youth vote, stress Cox’s authorship of the Internet Tax Freedom Act.
And McCain should emphasize the incredible breadth of Cox’s expertise: Jay Nordlinger of National Review once wrote, for instance, that Cox is “omnicompetent.” And he should bolster that with a series of admiring quotes from figures across the political spectrum, from George Will and other conservatives all the way to Barney Frank on the left, while noting that Cox was confirmed for the SEC by a unanimous Senate vote.
And then fly to Cox’s old congressional district in California and do a similar roll-out there.
IN SHORT, TELL a story so engaging that there is no opportunity for the media to get a skeptical word in edgewise. And have surrogates all over the country poised and ready to echo that story.
Of course, if the choice is Portman or Ryan, or somebody else, the same approach should be taken. McCain’s campaign has the tremendous luxury of time — time to do due diligence, time to test the choice, time to plan the public introduction to the nth degree.
In the end, the most important thing the choice of a running mate can accomplish is to impress Americans with McCain’s own judgment. The initial presentation of the chosen Veep may seem to be all about the Veep, but in truth it does more to tell Americans what it is that McCain himself values, what attributes McCain himself thinks are important.
By ably preparing and telling the Veep’s story, McCain will do much to promote his own story, and his own candidacy, as well.
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