The GOP field is down to two candidates. The presumptive winner, John McCain, enjoys only lukewarm support among conservatives. The other candidate, Mike Huckabee, has great support among conservatives—or so the press reports. Thus, it seems only natural for McCain to be eyeing Huckabee as a potential running mate. But Huckabee is not the solution to McCain’s conservative problem.
Take Mitt Romney’s oft-repeated characterization of conservatism as a three-legged stool, with economic, defense, and cultural legs. McCain is strongest on defense, and somewhat weaker on the other two. But it’s more complicated than that. McCain is not consistently bad on economic or cultural issues. He’s better on spending than on taxes, better on abortion than on stem cells or immigration. What McCain is—and this is what drives the talk-radio crowd crazy—is consistently unreliable.
Huckabee shares much of McCain’s consistent unreliability. Huckabee is staunchly conservative on abortion, stem-cell research, and homosexual marriage—and that, coupled with his vocal Evangelical faith, is enough to spark confidence in reporters that they’ve identified a member of the species “conservative.” But Huckabee has been weak on other cultural issues, like immigration; and he’s highly suspect on fiscal ones. Because of his propensity to tax and spend—and to speak like a populist—the man from Hope has few allies on Wall Street. As for national defense, Huckabee is mostly a blank slate.
This package doesn’t add up well for a potential McCain VP candidate. Where McCain is consistently weakest—on fiscal matters—Huckabee is weaker still. Where McCain is equally weak, on cultural (or law-and-order) issues like immigration, Huckabee is similarly so. Where McCain is strong, on national defense, Huckabee offers only Obama-like—or Clinton-like—inexperience. Where Huckabee is strong, particularly on the touchstone cultural issue of abortion, McCain is already on solid ground. It’s hard to see anywhere where a McCain weakness would be complemented by a Huckabee strength.
McCain’s VP selection needs to balance three important considerations. Because of McCain’s age, his vice-presidential nominee clearly needs to be ready to serve as President. To solidify the base, his choice needs to be someone whom conservatives like. Lastly, McCain doesn’t want his choice to compromise his high stock among independents. So what he really needs is the right kind of conservative—one ready for the job, and at least not unappealing to independents.