McCain-Rice Gets a Little More Real

Sort of like the idle Colin Powell rumors that swirled before the 1996 and 2000 Republican conventions, we’ve been forced

Sort of like the idle Colin Powell rumors that swirled before the 1996 and 2000 Republican conventions, we’ve been forced this campaign cycle to endure months of sporadic chatter about Condoleezza Rice’s supposed candidacy for the number two spot on the G.O.P. ticket.

Except that the speculation may have just taken a twist that the Powell talk never did: There’s suddenly reason to believe there might be something to it.

The twist was provided by, of all people, Dan Senor, a Republican talking head who was once the spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. During the weekly political roundtable on ABC’s This Week, Senor announced that Rice is “actively, actually, campaigning for this” and that she presented herself 10 days ago to the meeting of conservative heavyweights convened by Grover Norquist every Wednesday—“and she wasn’t there to talk about the NATO meeting in Bucharest.”

Until this point, it’s been easy to dismiss the Rice speculation as the product of a celebrity-driven press corps. Publicly, she’s adamantly maintained both a desire to leave Washington and government at the end of the Bush administration and an utter disinterest in running for public office. But Senor is right: Wednesday Group ring-kissing thoroughly undercuts that posture.

If she really does want the VP slot, John McCain would be well-advised to give Rice a long, hard look. Just like McCain, logic says that any national political aspirations that Rice may harbor should be DOA, thanks to the disastrously unpopular war for which she is in no small part responsible. But, again like McCain, there is reason to believe that Rice’s personal appeal remains strong, even to independent voters who long ago turned on the war.

Public opinion polling on cabinet members is spotty, but two polls released last year gave Rice approval ratings near 60 percent, about twice her disapproval rating. These numbers are the exact opposite of her boss’s—even though her fingerprints are all over the foreign policy that, more than anything, has dragged George W. Bush’s popularity into the gutter. Another survey released last year found that about twice as many people have a favorable personal opinion of Rice compared to those who don’t.

This data confirms what has been clear for a while: Rice is one of a very few high-profile figures whose standing with the public hasn’t measurably eroded through a close association with the Bush White House. And it reinforces what, through McCain’s resurgence, we have learned (yet again) about mass opinion: If voters like and respect a politician at a personal level, that bond—more often than not—will override whatever policy differences they may have with that politician.

McCain is a case study. His reputation was made eight years ago, when he happily claimed the maverick mantle and went to war with George W. Bush and the Republican establishment. It made him a hero to independent voters—finally, a politician who’s not afraid to call BS even on his own party—and a villain to conservatives. In truth, what both groups of voters were really responding to was a caricature. But the electorate rarely sees gray.

The degree to which that image remained intact became clear earlier this cycle, when McCain defined his campaign by his commitment to the Iraq war. He has ridiculed those who call for a withdrawal of troops, adamantly maintained that the preemptive invasion was warranted, loudly blocked every legislative attempt in the Senate to scale back the war and even suggested that a similar war with Iran might be in the cards if he’s elected president.

Logically, this record should infuriate the independent voters who adore Maverick McCain. It should also make him a hero to the right. And yet: The old caricature has prevailed. McCain only won his key early primary state victories thanks to support from antiwar independents and Republicans, while Republican voters who most favored the war lined up with Mitt Romney.

And that goes a long way toward explaining why the personally popular and respected Rice would be a considerable asset to a McCain-led ticket—even though it makes no logical sense.

On This Week, The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel scoffed at the mention of Rice as a VP prospect, dubbing her “the worst national security adviser in modern history.”

Vanden Heuvel and other highly engaged liberal partisans know Rice as the national security adviser who ignored considerable evidence to the contrary and assured Americans in 2002 and 2003 that Saddam Hussein possessed a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, and that the smoking gun proof of this might take the form of “a mushroom cloud” over the United States.

But at the moment, this is not what most Americans think of when they think of Rice, even as they’re telling pollsters that they don’t think the war was a good idea and that they don’t like the work the Bush administration has done. It’s the same with McCain: The same surveys that show voters declaring the war a mistake by a two-to-one margin also show McCain significantly outpolling both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama when it comes to the war and foreign policy.

If McCain were to pick Rice, he’d be sealing his intimate attachment to the war for the rest of the campaign. This should be political suicide. But because voters think so highly of him and of Rice, they might see something completely different—and appealing.

McCain-Rice Gets a Little More Real