Time to unleash the inner Maverick

August 18, 2008

Why McCain should choose Lieberman as his running mate

The big issue of last week was McCain’s announcement that he would consider picking a pro-choice running mate. Although this was nominally in the context of former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, this was really about the possibility of putting the Independent Senator Joe Lieberman on the ticket. Unsurprisingly, this has generate a lot of controversy, with Evangelical leaders and even the McCain supporting Weekly Standard say that this would be inadvisable. My take, as someone who has wagered money on this election, including on McCain’s vice presidential pick, is that McCain must ignore such ‘advice’ and choose Lieberman.

The conventional wisdom is that McCain will need someone who is either young or female, has a lot of expertise on the economy and will satisfy more conservative Republicans (or the ‘base’ as it is often called). Governors Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal would satisfy the first and the third criteria, while the current favourite, Mitt Romney, would seem to tick the last two boxes. However, Jindal and Palin do not bring any geographical advantage and are too young and inexperienced. Mitt Romney has had a lot of private sector experience and could help McCain in Michigan. However, even voters in the Republican primaries clearly preferred McCain’s inexperience to Romney’s reiteration of Bush’s economic philosophy.

In contrast Lieberman’s stance on the Iraq war, and his hawkish views on foreign policy, have made him the conscience of the Democratic party, at the same time that he has become an outcast from it. Selecting Lieberman would thwart Obama’s attempts to sideline foreign policy. It would be a powerful signal to swing voters who are disillusioned by both the antiwar stance of the Democrats, and the domestic policy stances of the Republicans. Selecting someone who marched for civil rights would stymie Obama’s cynical attempts to insinuate that McCain is a racist.

Most importantly, it would be a way for McCain to demonstrate that he is truly a maverick. McCain was courageous on foreign policy, but he has made too many concessions on domestic issues. Party identification figures suggest that the only way that McCain can win is if he manages to convince the electorate that he is neither a generic Republican nor someone who will be subservient to the GOP ‘base’ and their self-appointed leaders. Most importantly, the fact that the race remains deadlocked means that driving up Obama’s negative isn’t enough. McCain needs to offer some positive reasons for sending him to the White House.

Interestingly, the reactions to McCain’s musings, although largely negative, have been surprisingly muted. Although Evangelicals and economic conservatives were intensely critical, the hysterical threats of third party candidacies that plagued Giuliani and the calls for a fight at the convention were absent. Even the National Review, which once ran an article demanding that McCain stuff his cabinet with luminaries such as George ‘Macaca’ Allen, seemed prepared to accept McCain’s choice. Having lauded Lieberman for his work on violence in television, and relied on his support when a prominent pastor’s disgraceful views were exposed, the Evangelical Right cannot credibly oppose him.

However, Lieberman will need to acknowledge that he, rather than McCain, will be doing most of the compromising on domestic policy. Lieberman will also have to modify his pro-choice position, which puts him at odds with McCain’s opposition to abortion. However, although he was ultimately unsuccessful, Rudolph Giuliani made a pretty convincing case that a willingness to select pro-life judges is more important than a specific stance on abortion. Ultimately, McCain needs to reassert his position as a moderate on domestic policy and a hawk on foreign affairs, rather than using his running mate to pretend that he doesn’t ‘have more scars than Frankenstein’.

In any case, having floated the idea, McCain will look weak if he doesn’t follow through. If he fails to face down the Republican establishment on such a symbolic issue, he will have difficulty convincing American voters in November that he can be trusted to face down the leadership of Russia and Iran. I’m not American, and my objectivity is compromised by the money that I have staked on Lieberman being McCain’s vice president, but it would be strange if McCain was unable to do what Truman (with Eisenhower), Clinton (with Collin Powell) or even a hack like Kerry (with McCain himself) did and at least offer a place on the ticket to someone from outside their party.



  1. “However, even voters in the Republican primaries clearly preferred McCain’s inexperience to Romney’s reiteration of Bush’s economic philosophy.”

    I’m not sure about that. The conservative and economic primary votes were split among the other candidates, and their backers didn’t realize until too late that this left McCain, many people’s last choice in the field, with a plurality.

    “If he fails to face down the Republican establishment on such a symbolic issue, he will have difficulty convincing American voters in November that he can be trusted to face down the leadership of Russia and Iran.”

    I think this may be a mis-read by a non-American with a moderate bent. I’m not hearing that from anyone else, in radio, internet, hard print or personal conversation. Most people who would think anything about McCain standing up to Republicans are not going to vote for him in any case.

    Good stuff nonetheless. I like your insight, I’m just not sure of those two premises. Lieberman does seem likely.

    I agree that Jindal is too new to office, and Palin also (though not to the same degree). Better for the Republicans and even the country to leave them where they are and see them in the primary field in 2012 or 2016 if they are succesful governors.

    I would like to see someone from outside the Republican’s primary field. I’m not convinced it needs to be Lieberman or another flaming moderate as McCain’s rep as a maverick is pretty strong to begin with.

    Not sure whether its an indictment of my own political knowledge or the GOP that I can’t think of a strong enough Republican who didn’t run in the primary. Going through the list of governors is… not too inspiring.

    One interesting hypothetical would have been David Petraeus. Since he’s still in uniform with a command he values, and has denied having political ambitions, I suppose that won’t happen. It would have put Obama on the spot again on terrorism and Iraq. And I don’t think just any general would do.

  2. You’re forgetting something about the Religious Right, tipster. They vote their religion.

    Voting for McCain-Lieberman would be their equivilance of making a deal with the devil. There is no way in the world America’s social conservatives would stomach it.

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