Lieberman Skepticism Misses the Point

NBC’s First Read claims that Joe Lieberman’s chances of landing on the G.O.P. ticket effectively ended yesterday, when the leaders of various social conservative groups reacted with fury to John McCain’s suggestion that a pro-choice stand wouldn’t disqualify any potential running-mate. According to First Read:

That thud you just heard was the Ridge/Lieberman VP trial balloon that social conservative activists quickly popped. They couldn’t find reporters fast enough to denounce the prospect of McCain adding a pro-choice pol to his ticket.

I disagree.

First, of course social conservative “leaders” are going to react this way. Their status in the world of Republican politics (i.e. the reason politicians court them and the media wants to talk to them) is derived entirely from the perception that they will can and will derail a candidate who doesn’t tow their line on issues like abortion and gay rights. So of course (for instance) Phil Burress of the Ohio-based Citizens for Community values is going to tell the Politico that a pro-choice VP would “doom” McCain in Ohio.

But whether these “leaders” really speak for the masses is a different matter. Recall that during the primary season we heard similar doomsday forecasts from various conservative interest-group leaders about the consequences for the G.O.P. of nominating McCain. Rush Limbaugh was even talking about conservatives writing in a candidate in November rather than checking off McCain’s name.

But guess what? It’s the middle of August and McCain has no problems at all with the G.O.P. base – he’s winning nearly 90 percent of the G.O.P. vote and Republicans are telling pollsters they are motivated to vote this November even if they still don’t care much for McCain. The explanation is simple and obvious: The G.O.P. base hates and fears Barack Obama much more intensely than it ever hated and feared McCain.  

Conventional wisdom was dead wrong six months ago when it decreed that McCain could never win over the G.O.P. base. Now, conventional wisdom has it that social conservatives will, by the millions, walk away from McCain and the G.O.P. if he chooses a pro-choice running mate. And once again, this seems like a flawed and oversimplified analysis.

To understand why, you have to consider which particular pro-choicer McCain might place on the ticket and how the selection would be sold. For instance, Tom Ridge would probably be a lot more problematic than Lieberman. Why? Because with Lieberman, there’d be two powerful counter-forces that could neutralize the impact of outraged social conservative leaders.

First, there’d be the reaction to Lieberman from the left, which would be vicious and over the top. Among social conservative voters (as opposed to their “leaders”), this would engender a sense of sympathy for and kinship with Lieberman – who would probably take advantage of this by not so subtly changing the way he talks about abortion. He’d swear off tinkering with the G.O.P.’s platform language, talk about all of the common ground between himself and the pro-life community (we both want to end abortion, he’d tell them), and maybe even start talking about a “culture of life.” In short, Lieberman could present himself as pro-choice in name only. This is much different than putting an avowed, William Weld-like pro-choicer on the ticket.

The second neutralizing force would be the added appeal to independent voters that Lieberman’s presence would create. Right now, independent voters who badly want to throw the G.O.P. out of the White House (there are many of them) will only vote for McCain for negative reasons – that is to say, because of some concern about Obama’s experience or toughness or some similar quality. McCain’s campaign recognizes this and has been focused (wisely) on driving up these concerns about Obama. But Lieberman – alone among VP prospects – could change this basic equation and make the G.O.P. ticket attractive in its own right to these same independent voters. The gains made among independents would easily dwarf whatever fallout Lieberman’s selection would trigger among social conservatives (especially consider the above-discussed ways that Lieberman could also mollify social conservatives).

Rich Lowry has written a far more realistic take on Lieberman’s prospects. He’s less bullish on the political benefits of a McCain-Lieberman ticket than I am, but he does acknowledge that it could be sold to the G.O.P. base. His suggestion: a pledge from both McCain and Lieberman to serve only one term. In effect, they’d be telling conservatives: You may not be wild about us, but we’re a lot better than Obama and you’ll still get to choose one of your own in 2012.

The socially conservative “leaders” that the press loves to call might not go for that. But it wouldn’t matter: Socially conservative voters would.