John McCain’s V.P. Dilemma

After beating the odds and capturing the Republican nomination, John McCain faces many challenges—raising money, staying in the headlines, calming the conservative base. But none is more daunting than the first major test of his executive skills: selecting a running mate.

In choosing a vice-presidential candidate, he’ll have to say “no thanks” to many well-meaning (but potentially disastrous) suggestions while staving off a new opportunity for mischief-making from his conservative foes.

At the top of the list of proposed shotgun marriages is a pairing with his former rival Mitt Romney. Conservative pundits, former Romney boosters and even Romney himself have been dropping hints—loudly. Romney even auditioned as McCain’s attack dog (a familiar role for the VP) by labeling Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama “Chihuahuas” in comparison to the “big dog” McCain. Aside from his personal distain for Romney, McCain may be inclined to look elsewhere for a watchdog if he wants someone who could actually help him win in November. After all, Romney did even worse than McCain among religious-right voters in the South. And if McCain is selling authenticity and integrity, he hardly needs a running mate whom he accused of lacking both.

Just as unhelpful to McCain is a suggestion by the editors of National Review Online that the delegates at the G.O.P. convention stage a revolt and hold out for a VP candidate of their liking (presumably someone who passed the conservative purity test). Now, one might wonder why convention delegates pledged in overwhelming numbers to McCain would be amenable to instigation from magazine editors who supported Romney. But either way, the suggestion (or was it a threat?) was likely meant to help shove McCain in the direction of an ultra-conservative VP pick. He hardly needed reminding: conservatives will be mightily disappointed if he does not choose a rock ribbed conservative.

Then there are the conservatives (who normally bemoan affirmative action and snicker that the Democrats are caught in a trap of identity politics) who urge that McCain pick a woman. Apparently, the talent pool of Republican women is thin enough to have made an insiders’ favorite of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. She is popular and attractive and shoots deer, which are pluses with many male conservative pundits. Nevertheless, their jabs at the Democratic candidates’ “inexperience” would sound a bit suspect if the Republicans chose their own untested VP.

Some pundits have even suggested Condoleezza Rice, both on diversity grounds and to “emphasize” McCain’s foreign policy credentials. Apparently, word has been slow in getting out in some circles that many Americans at both ends of the political spectrum consider her largely responsible for mismanaging the country’s national-security apparatus for the last seven years. If McCain has any hope in November it lies in running against the mismanagement of the Iraq war. (That would be the war Rice helped mismanage.) Not even the best political consultants could navigate around that contradiction.

The real choice for McCain is whether to reinforce or dilute his “brand”—a maverick, attractive to independents—which might help him prevail against the odds in a hard year for Republicans. If, like Bill Clinton, he chooses to pick a running mate who puts an exclamation point on his strong suits, he might select moderate Governor Charlie Crist or even another party maverick like Joe Lieberman. But then the far right would once again be up in arms.

If McCain instead seeks to mollify the base, he will look for a staunch conservative who could at least be close to the Oval Office and be his possible successor. Still, it is no small trick finding a very conservative, viable commander-in-chief-in-waiting running mate who will not undermine McCain’s appeal to independents.

So the advisers and pundits will circulate lists and the suggestions will pour in. If McCain wants to keep his chances alive for November, he’ll need to practice the trick of politely ignoring them. John McCain’s V.P. Dilemma