John McCain let a not-so-pretty kitty out of the bag the other day by allowing that he wouldn't rule out selecting a "pro-choice" running mate. It's been rumored that former Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is on the Senator's short list, and possibly even "independent" Democrat Senator Joe Lieberman. If McCain goes in this direction, he truly is thumbing his nose at the conservative Republican base that he needs if he hopes to be elected.
On the surface, there seems to be no political sense to what McCain is contemplating. Both Ridge and Lieberman are at least perceived as strong on national defense given Ridge's former cabinet position and Lieberman's courageous support of the Iraq war while alienating himself from his party. The national security area is the one for which McCain would seemingly need the least help. So we are left to wonder why McCain would look to either of these two as his running mate.
Selecting a pro-choice running mate also seems to go against McCain's professed desire to appoint federal and Supreme Court judges in the mold of Justices Roberts and Alito. Thus it would confirm our worst fears that McCain's promise in this area may be an empty one. Further, it would certainly open to question McCain's own pro-life bona-fides.
McCain's selection of a "centrist" running mate would presumably burnish his "maverick" image which he has done little to run away from during this campaign. Ironically, if he goes in this direction it's really the easy decision from his vantage point, not something that a true, gutsy maverick would do. After all, a VP nominee such as Ridge or especially Lieberman would do much to please the drive-by media who have deserted McCain for their new golden one, Obama. Maybe McCain believes it's more important what the drive-bys think than what many Republican voters think.
In the mean time, Obama may be moving in a more sensible direction by considering a relatively moderate running mate such as Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana. If Obama in fact chooses Bayh or someone like him (an increasingly rare species these days) he will be perceived as balancing out his left-leaning tendencies with someone more toward the so-called "center." However, if McCain picks a centrist there will be two centrists on the Republican ticket, making it less desirable for any Republican voter with a conservative bent.
McCain and his advisors may think that they cannot possibly overplay their hand; with such an inexperienced and left-leaning opponent as the alternative, Republicans in their view will feel they have no choice but to pull the lever for McCain. However, that's not necessarily the case.
As I mentioned a few months ago, there are third-party candidates who, while not viable by a long shot, can still make enough noise to have some bearing on the major party candidates' electability. Ralph Nader has been blamed for killing both Gore's and Kerry's chances by siphoning off just enough votes as the Green Party candidate to destroy the Democrat candidate's chances. There is certainly a possibility, given the presumed nomination of McCain and a centrist running mate, that alternative candidates more desirable to conservatives may attract some votes. With a couple of fairly well-known names in the mix, such as former Congressman Bob Barr as the Libertarian Party candidate, and former ambassador Alan Keyes as the American Independent Party candidate, McCain risks losing some conservative votes-and in an election that may be tight, this could prove to be critical.
At this point, it would seem that McCain's more sensible choice is Mitt Romney, who, although he's changed positions at least once, is now solidly pro-life. As a successful businessman, he would give the ticket the gravitas it needs in economic matters, about which McCain freely admits not knowing much. Although not as conservative as many conservatives would want, Romney is nevertheless more conservative than either Ridge or Lieberman. Romney would also bring the potential swing state of Michigan into play for McCain given his popularity there, as a former resident whose father was a successful governor.
Perhaps a more ideal choice for McCain would be former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who is a solid social conservative and ran reasonably well in the Republican primaries. However, McCain doesn't seem to show much inclination in this direction.
McCain's choice of a running mate is more important than usual, given his age and the potential for a one-term presidency or the increased risk of death or ill health while in office. Therefore the stakes are high and he needs to get this right. If he doesn't, that does not portend well for his presidency should he be elected, and may not portend well for his election either.