Conservatives seem to have an intense interest in John McCain’s vice presidential choice. Last week’s column started such an avalanche of reader correspondence that it might be worthwhile to draw out the discussion a while. Today’s installment is packed with wonderful choices who did not quite meet all my criteria. Five people met all my criteria, by the way; I’ll save them for another column.
I came up with 35 names of people to whom I would not be averse, some of them after having some 3 a.m. insomnia. I tried to think outside the box, for instance, and even found myself inside the batter’s box instead with Cal Ripken Jr. (Okay, that was the insomnia talking: Not gonna happen.) Newt Gingrich (too divisive, but what a great thinker!), pizza magnate Herman Cain (okay, he’s never won public office before), former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (unfortunately crushed in his race for governor in 2006), former Virginia Senator and Gov. George Allen (macaca), Jeb Bush (wrong name), and former National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Lynne Cheney (wrong last name again) were among those who met the test of the heart but not the head. For various reasons, I could live with (even enthusiastically for a few, but not all, of these) Condi Rice, Fred Thompson, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Tennessee’s Sen. Lamar Alexander, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, and California’s U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, among a few others, but am utterly convinced they would not be at all the strongest choices.
The next list (moving toward better and better choices) includes former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, Texas’ Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Rudy Giuliani, South Dakota’s Sen. John Thune, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (the nation’s best sitting governor, tremendously under-appreciated nationally), and — upon very nice words from both a persuasive reader and by a conservative pundit whom I greatly admire — North Carolina’s Sen. Richard Burr.
All of which leads us with six people who would be thrilling, effective, utterly wonderful choices, even if they don’t meet all my criteria. Here’s how I summed up my criteria last week: 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. All of that is a rather tall order, of course. Candidates can be superb choices even if they don’t check every item on some arbitrary list. Let’s look, then, at my “Superb Six” — some of whom offer intangibles that may actually make them better choices than one or two of those who meet all my criteria).
Two House members fall short only on the “moment’s notice” criterion. Wisconsin’s U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, who just turned 38, may just be seen as too young — but, wow, what a resume already! A brainy, attractive, principled conservative, he worked for Sens. Bob Kasten and Sam Brownback, and also for conservative idea leaders Jack Kemp and William Bennett. He’s already been in Congress for 10 years, but he has yet to be subsumed in the bad old ways and the conventional wisdom; instead, he has been a font of ideas, and a devotee of conservative ideals. A compatriot of his as a reformist conservative is Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn, already an influential House member in only her third term (after four years in the state Senate and some 20 years as a Republican activist). Strikingly attractive, she gets high marks from Americans for Tax Reform, the Family Research Council, and other conservative groups. She is articulate and principled, and is clearly a rising star.
The next four superb choices all fail the need to add something to the ticket geographically or in terms of a particular constituency. What I wrote last week was this: 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. (And by “Deep South” I mean both Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, in contrast to “border South” states such as Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas or with the more culturally diverse Florida.)
It is for that reason only that I place South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Sen. Jim DeMint in the “Superb Six” also-rans here rather than in my next installment containing the Final Five. Sanford, a former congressman, is quirky but extremely effective. Like McCain, he is a maverick — but explicitly a maverick of the right, dissenting not from conservative orthodoxy but from Republican Party back-scratching. DeMint has been an extremely principled U.S. senator, and is very persuasive in small groups. Meanwhile, very much in the Sanford mode is Oklahoma’s U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, whom the establishment media seemed to despise (as an “extremist”) while he was in the House, but whose consistent advocacy of stringent ethics rules is earning him grudging respect even from ideological foes. Coburn is a fine speaker and a brilliant man, and very much a hero of conservatives.
Finally, there is Indiana’s U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, one of the most galvanizing and principled young (48) conservatives in Congress. He’s only in his fourth term, but is already a hero on the right, and his experience is broadened by his former presidency of the Indiana Policy Review think tank. He is perhaps the single best speaker on the conservative scene these days, and his white hair (surrounding a very youthful face) helps make him seem perhaps more of a legislative veteran than he actually is — and thus to be more credible, to the general public, as somebody who could step into the Oval Office in an emergency without missing a beat. The geographical drawback of being from a state that always votes for a Republican president might be overcome by virtue of his broader Midwesternness: In other words, if he is sold as a regional candidate rather than just as an Indianan, he may be of help in places like Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, and maybe even Minnesota. If McCain were to choose Pence, conservatives would cheer many loud hosannas, while the rest of the country would see not at all a bomb thrower, but a thoughtful, upbeat, inspirational young leader.
Hmmm… Maybe he belongs in my top group after all. Stay tuned for my Final Five in a future column.