There’s plenty of of noise coming from the right these days, dire warnings to John McCain about the terrible consequences that will befall him if he fails to appease the Republican Party’s base with his VP selection. These voices come in response to McCain’s apparent openness to choosing a pro-choice running mate – possibly Tom Ridge, but more likely Joe Lieberman.
His dilemma calls to mind the one faced by George H. W. Bush 20 years ago. Bush, much like McCain now, was not particularly liked or trusted by the right (although, unlike McCain, he had spent the previous eight years bending over backward to alter this reputation). As the ’88 G.O.P. convention approached, the right’s dominant voices loudly demanded that Bush appease them by selecting a stridently conservative running mate. Failure to do so, they told the press, would cost him the election. After toying with choosing pro-choice Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, Bush ultimately complied with the right and tapped Dan Quayle of Indiana.
For what it’s worth, here’s a sample of the reaction of conservative leaders to Quayle’s selection:
* Then New Hampshire Senator Gordon Humphrey: “It is hard to imagine a more sound and appropriate choice.”
* Phyllis Schlafly: Quayle “brings youth, attractiveness, conservative image … all the elements of a great and winning ticket.”
* Pat Robertson: “A pretty smart choice.”
All of that praise, of course, seemed silly by the end of the ’88 campaign. Quayle was woefully unprepared for the national spotlight and his presence on the ticket raised serious concerns about Bush’s judgment. But for all of Quayle’s problems, Bush still defeated Michael Dukakis in a rout – and almost certainly would have done so no matter whom he picked as a running mate. But because he gave in to the loudest voices on the right, he was stuck with Quayle and his chronically embarrassing episodes for the next four years.
This isn’t to suggest that the conservative prospects most commonly linked to McCain’s VP search process are Quayle-like. But Bush’s ’88 experience does illustrate how politically myopic most conservative leaders can be – and the price that a presidential nominee can pay for giving too much weight to their threats of mass defections.