John McCain obviously wants the country to begin thinking and talking about his selection of a running mate – otherwise, why did he invite three leading V.P. possibilities (Governors Mitt Romney, Charlie Crist and Bobby Jindal) to his home in Sedona, Arizona for a Memorial Day barbeque?
Each of the three visitors offers strengths and weaknesses to a potential ticket – as do the other names under consideration for the Republican nomination for Vice President of the United States.
The list below provides quick (and unabashedly opinionated) evaluations of all the leading contenders, and a few worthy dark horses.
PRO: Already well-known from his own Presidential race, accomplished as a TV debater, reassuring to conservatives uneasy with McCain, and possessor of the most appealing and wholesome family in American political history. Romney’s solid business background might also help to stem (or at least counteract) the surprising and disturbing flow of corporate cash to Obama. His executive experience in the business world and as Governor of Massachusetts will help make up for gaps in McCain’s resume. His background in Michigan (where his father was a popular governor) would help in a crucial swing state and Obama’s weak polling in Massachusetts suggests Romney might even put the Bay State in play.
CON: The same weaknesses that hampered his presidential campaign could also hurt him as a Vice Presidential candidate – including well-advertised flip-flops on key issues like abortion, guns and immigration. His embrace of McCain might also come across as another flip-flop after their bitter duel in the primaries. More seriously, Romney’s proudest achievement as Governor of Massachusetts, the bi-partisan creation of a statewide health insurance system known as “Romney-care,” looks more and more like a nightmarish disaster. Worst of all, the essential elements of that plan closely resemble Democratic health-care proposals for the nation at large – proposals that McCain has opposed as a dangerous expansion of government. Finally, Romney’s Mormon faith won’t hurt him in states where Evangelicals are important (McCain should be solid in those Southern and Midwestern states in any event) but it won’t help him among the Catholic, ethnic voters who provide the most important swing group in crucial battlegrounds like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
PRO: Likeable, telegenic and young enough (he turns 52 a few weeks before the GOP convention) to provide the ticket with a much-needed spark of youthfulness. His popularity in Florida would help put that key state safely in the Republican column. His Greek Cypriot background (the original family name was Christodoulou) and Pennsylvania birth might help him connect with ethnic, blue collar voters in key states. As Florida Attorney General and a member of the state senate he earned an admirable tough-on-crime reputation and the nickname “Chain Gang Charlie” for his advocacy of chain gangs for prison inmates.
CON: Crist might be a tough sell to Christian conservatives who will play an essential role in any McCain victory. He drew criticism for his lack of toughness in approaching the Terri Schiavo controversy when he was Attorney General. More importantly, he’s been single since his divorce in 1980 (after a marriage that lasted only a year). He’s been linked to various glamorous women, but also drawn nasty rumors of possible gay activity. In 2007, the press recycled old reports about a young woman who claimed that he had fathered her out-of-wedlock child in 1989. Such reports, of course, would receive lavish and detailed press coverage the moment Crist appeared on a ticket with a very real chance that stories about his dating life over the last 28 years would drown out serious discussion of his accomplishments.
PRO: His impeccable conservative credentials (a 98% American Conservative Union rating during his two terms in Congress) and stalwart defense of human life (“I am 100 percent pro life with no exceptions”) would help rally worn right-wingers to McCain’s cause. Rush Limbaugh has praised Jindal as “the next Ronald Reagan – winning with 100 percent pure conservatism.” Jindal’s remarkable success with ethics legislation during his first months as governor of notoriously corrupt Louisiana would also help McCain run as a reformer who could clean up “the mess in Washington” the way his running mate cleaned up the mess in Baton Rouge. Above all his youth (he’ll be 37 at the convention) and brilliance (biology degree from Brown, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford) would help Republicans balance some of the hysterical excitement over Obama. As the son of immigrants (who arrived from India for graduate school in Louisiana when Jindal’s mother was pregnant with him) he could help connect with Hispanic voters, where Republicans desperately need help. Asians will also make up 4% of the electorate and by placing the first Asian-American on the ticket, McCain could help stop the drift of this growing segment of the population toward the Democrats. Also, Jindal is a devout Catholic (he converted in high school from Hinduism) and has written thoughtful theological pieces for conservative Catholic journals. His ability to connect with religious Catholics will help in any number of battleground states. Finally, he displays an ease on TV and a sense of humor that will disarm all critics: his appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno has become a favorite on You Tube and represented a triumph for the young governor. With Jindal on the ticket, voters wouldn’t have to go to the Democrats in order to elect our first person of color to national office.
CON: He’s too young, too inexperienced – how can Republicans criticize Obama as unprepared, when Jindal is ten years younger? Actually, this argument ends up turning in Jindal’s favor, since he possesses vastly MORE experience than Obama, particularly in executive positions. In addition to his early triumphs as governor, he’s also won spectacular success in a long series of leadership roles – as executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, President of the Louisiana State University System (at the ludicrously young age of 26!), Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services (unanimously confirmed – and praised – in a bipartisan vote of the US Senate), and two terms in the House of Representatives (including service on the House Committee on Homeland Security and re-election with 88% of the vote). Nothing in the Obama resume comes close to any of this. It’s true that I started promoting Jindal for Veep on my radio show nearly a year ago (before he even won election as governor) and, frankly, I don’t see serious negatives to his candidacy.
PRO: As with Bobby Jindal, the popular governor of Mississippi would perform an important function in turning the history of Hurricane Katrina from a big negative to a net positive for the national GOP. Barbour showed skill, fortitude and class in responding to the disaster -- especially in comparison to the Democratic governor in neighboring Louisiana, Jindal's hapless predecessor, Kathleen Blanco. He's also a can-do, take-charge guy who provided take-no-prisoners leadership during service as chairman of the Republican National Committee at the time of the historic take-over of Congress in 1994. He's a favorite of the GOP establishment, which remains decidedly cool toward McCain.
CON: Barbour's history as a top D.C. lawyer, GOP insider and well-paid lobbyist undermines McCain's theme of reform, and would provide an inviting target for Obama and company to talk about Republican seduction by K-Street lobbyists. His thick Mississippi roots (son of a Yazoo City lawyer with the wonderfully Faulknerian name of Jeptha Fowlkes Barbour Jr.) would do nothing to re-brand the Republican Party as less dependent on support and leadership from the states of the old Confederacy.
PRO: In many ways an obvious and powerful choice: no governor in the country has been more associated with radical cuts in wasteful government spending, and Sanford challenged the local leaders of his own party (who mostly hate Sanford's guts) to get 'er done. If McCain makes cutting the size of bloated, intrusive government his main domestic priority (and he should), Sanford helps significantly with credibility on that issue. In three terms in Congress, Sanford compiled an admirably solid conservative record, even voting against pork barrel projects that would have benefited his own South Carolina district. Most importantly, he was one of the few "Republican Revolutionaries" who actually kept his pledge to term limit himself: after arriving in Washington as a young "citizen legislator," he left Congress after his three terms, as promised. The formal Eagle Scout is a telegenic straight arrow, the father of four boys who can compete with the five Romneys for wholesome appeal, and a conspicuously youthful 44 years old-- younger than Obama, with a much richer array of accomplishments.
CON: Though born and raised in Florida (another advantage, actually), Sanford has lived since high school on a South Carolina plantation, and that symbolism could prove deadly in a race against a ticket headed by Barack Obama. The press would focus on the "historic contrast" of the first African-American candidate taking on a ticket that includes the governor of the most pro-slavery, pro-secession state of 'em all. The Confederate battle flag issue (it still flies at a war memorial on the state capitol grounds where Sanford presides) would receive an enthusiastic work out from Obama's media supporters, recalling McCain's embarrassed handling of the controversy in his previous presidential campaign (he initially supported the flag, then condemned himself for his own prior support). A white Episcopalian Southerner, even one as accomplished and effective as Mark Sanford, probably provides little help to the ticket in the key urban battleground states of the Midwest and Northeast (Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania).
PRO: Would help to mobilize religious conservatives to the Republican banner, clearly connects with critical blue-collar swing voters, displayed the most formidable TV communications skills since Reagan and won every one of the televised debates in which he appeared. His up-from-the-bottom personal story (first member of his family ever to graduate high school, let alone college) and successful struggle against obesity helps destroy the idea of the GOP as a party of country club elites. His sense of humor and personal charm make him a sure-thing presidential contender for the future (he’s only 52) whether or not he makes it on the ticket this time.
CON: His background as a Baptist minister might hurt him among Catholic big city voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and other critical states. He hasn’t released all his sermons from years past, but the press would no doubt get hold of this material if he ran for VEEP and review every word of every sermon to smear Huckabee with embarrassing passages (look what they did to John Hagee). Members of the LDS church still resent Huckabee for his bruising campaign against Romney (particularly in Iowa) and Mormons, loyal Republicans for the most part, will be an important component for GOP victory in ferocious battleground states like Nevada and Colorado. Whether or not he’s McCain’s running mate, Huckabee should move immediately to secure his political future by making amends to LDS members who suspect him of anti-Mormon bigotry.
PRO: Proven appeal to suburban voters in Minnesota, the Governor is solidly conservative but unintimidating, likeable, easy-going. Polish-American background could help in Midwestern big cities, but his adult conversion from Roman Catholic to Lutheran won’t count as a plus. At 47, Pawlenty’s youthful appeal and soothing, genial presentation offer a nice balance to McCain’s age and edginess. Minnesota has carried for the Democrats in every election since 1976 (!) but Pawlenty on the ticket (combined with the GOP convention in St. Paul) could put the Gopher State in play.
CON: Little known nationally, with few demonstrated coat-tails in Minnesota. The press would probably characterize Pawlenty as a bland, safe, uninspired choice, denying the McCain campaign the jolt of energy it needs and seeks.
PRO: Wonderfully telegenic, reputation as a giant killer for knocking off Democratic leader Tom Daschle in the 2004 South Dakota senate race. Senator Thune is a fervent Evangelical Christian (with a degree from California's deeply religious Biola University) and displays a gift for talking about his faith in a winning, unthreatening manner.
CON: South Dakota isn’t a key electoral battleground, and McCain probably needs a running mate with executive experience (as a governor or cabinet officer) to balance his background in Congress. At age 43, Thune will be a factor in future Presidential races but probably not this time.
PRO: Best resume of any prospective candidate: Vietnam War hero (Bronze Star, eight other major medals), six term US Congressman (part of Reagan Revolution), wildly popular, tax-cutting Governor of Pennsylvania, first Secretary of Homeland Security in US history. His presence on the ticket probably puts Pennsylvania up for grabs – and without the Keystone State (where Obama got creamed by Hillary in the primary) the Democrats will almost surely lose. His background in coal country and ethnicity (Slovakian on his mother’s side, Irish on his father’s side) and Catholic faith might help the ticket with big city, Midwestern voters sure to play a crucial role. Ridge has also lived a great “American Dream” story: attending Harvard on scholarship, earning his living expenses with construction jobs, and graduating with honors.
CON: Ridge is identified as a pro-choice Catholic – and on that issue alone McCain probably won’t consider him. In an interview with Chris Matthews on “Hardball,” McCain suggested that any disagreement with his own strongly pro-life record would probably rule out a potential running mate, and Matthews (and others) assumed he had Ridge in mind.
PRO: Another great resume: FBI agent who specialized in investigating terrorists, crime-busting US attorney, Republican leader in the Oklahoma State Senate, Associate Attorney General and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration, Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (under Jack Kemp), two term Governor of Oklahoma (including compassionate and inspiring leadership after the Oklahoma City bombing). Keating is also a devout Catholic, who used his crime-fighting abilities to help expose and root-out the scandal of priestly abuse in his church, representing the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
CON: His age: (64) hardly gives the ticket the youthful balance it probably needs. Ideally, the Republicans don’t want to face Obama’s zesty youth with two guys with thinning white hair.
The claims by Hillary Clinton supporters that their favorite suffered from “sexism” provide a juicy opportunity for the GOP to place a female on the ticket and to benefit from this disgruntlement. If Obama fails to select Hillary (and he seems determined to avoid her if he possibly can) he probably can’t choose another woman (like Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas) because any such selection would seem less qualified, less logical, than Senator Clinton herself.
In any event, if the GOP could turn to a strongly qualified female, it might create a good deal of excitement and media enthusiasm for the ticket. The problem is that there’s no obvious female contender and the leading names display serious shortcomings.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas? Probably too old (64), with some corruption charges against her, and a history as a stunningly boring public speaker. Senator Elizabeth Hanford Dole of North Carolina? Definitely too old (even older than McCain –by one month) and carrying association with an even older guy—Bob Dole.
Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska? An intriguing possibility, because this athlete and former beauty queen has already inspired an admiring website called “America’s Hottest Governor.” At 44, she definitely brings youth (and charisma) to the ticket, but experience is a real problem: she’s been governor less than two years, and before that served only as mayor of the town of Wasilla (hardly qualification for leader of the free world).
This leaves only one credible female candidate…..
PRO: It’s amazing that this phenomenally popular Governor of Connecticut hasn’t received more attention. In her re-election bid (2006), she received the most votes for governor of any candidate in state history, crushing her Democratic opponent 63% to 36%, in a heavily Democratic state in a nightmarishly tough year for Republicans. Her recent approval ratings approach a stratospheric 80%. As governor, she masterfully finessed the gay marriage issue – agreeing to sign a civil union bill, but only if it came attached to a provision limiting marriage itself to “a man and a woman.” She’s threatened to veto any gay marriage act. She served ten years in the state legislature and three terms as Lieutenant Governor before she became Governor in 2004, cleaning up the ethical disaster left behind from her disgraced and resigned predecessor, John Rowland. Her husband is a Navy pilot (like McCain), and she herself is a courageous breast cancer survivor – a dynamic but down-to-earth presence at age 62, with special appeal to crucial suburban voters. Rell’s toughness and unpretentiousness will remind people of what they thought they liked about Hillary.
CON: Though she studied at Old Dominion University in Virginia and Western Connecticut State University, she never graduated from college—she would be the first individual on a national ticket since Truman without a college degree. In today’s anti-elitist climate, that might actually be an advantage. Connecticut’s not supposed to be a swing state, but with Rell on the ticket and Joe Lieberman’s enthusiastic support for McCain, the Democrats would have to fight hard to keep the Nutmeg State.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Bobby Jindal offers the GOP the best chance in many years for reshaping the party's tarnished, tired image without in any way abandoning timeless conservative principles. McCain should select the Louisiana governor several weeks before the convention, to get maximum benefit from his candidacy. Imagine a quick Jindal foreign tour-- including a stop in his ancestral homeland, India, where he will be received (rightly) as a conquering hero. Just as Obama-mania begins to feel a bit forced and old-hat, Jindal-mania can inspire press and public with attention to every aspect of the governor's amazing career, his gorgeous and adorable young family, profoundly eloquent expressions of Catholic faith (he gives moving testimonials to the power of Christ in Evangelical churches), unlikely connection with the "Bubba" vote in Louisiana, and much, much more. The very prospect of a Vice President whose full legal name is "Piyush Subhaschandra Amrit "Bobby" Jindal" has a marvelously exotic, only-in-America feel to it.
If McCain for some reason misses this obvious choice, Mary Jodi Rell of Connecticut offers another ground-breaking possibility which Democrats will find tough to smear. Among the more "conventional" white male candidates, Frank Keating and Tim Pawlenty probably offer Republicans the strongest additions to the ticket.
One of the main needs for the entire party in facing down the energized Democrats in what looks like a tough year for the GOP is a jolt of electricity, of freshness, to send a message that this isn't just your grandfather's GOP -- it's a new, dynamic, determined party ready to lead the country in a bold new conservative direction. Republicans can't win merely by scaring people about Obama. The American people truly do crave change and with his selection of a running mate McCain should signal that they can get the right kind of change -- more freedom, less government and more world leadership, less America-bashing -- by electing Republicans. The choice of the right ticket-mate is particularly important this year not just because of Senator McCain's advanced age, but because of the Republican Party's desperate and obvious need to improve its image.
We need to deploy the right "c words" -- clear-cut conservative change -- not the wrong c words -- corruption and compromise.
Fortunately, the list of truly impressive and promising candidates reviewed above shows that many potential running mates could help the ticket and that whatever its faults, the Republican Party boasts a deep, impressive bench and a wide array of talented up-and-comers. Politically, they're all pros -- and, unlike some of the parties ethically challenged former leaders, none of them are cons.