The vice presidential sweepstakes are in full gear. For John McCain there are is no shortage of contenders. Every pundit has ideas for how to solidify McCain’s base and more importantly, how to bolster his domestic credentials as the economy has moved to the top of the list of voters’ concerns.
Some suggestions seem to be the product of pundits’ active imaginations or wishful thinking.
Mitt Romney is featured on most lists, in part because of his business background and in part because of his supposed appeal to conservatives. But neither seems a well reasoned basis for putting him on the ticket. Despite his business credentials Romney routinely polled worse than John McCain among Republican primary voters on his ability to handle the economy. Somehow voters never bought him as the steward of the government’s economic policies. And as for conservatives, Romney’s third place finish in Red states on Super Tuesday and reputation as a Johnny-come-lately to conservative causes would suggest he is not going to attract many voters based on his conservative credentials.
Moreover, since Barack Obama has become the target of widespread criticism for flip flopping on every significant issue in the campaign, Romney’s reputation for doing the same would pose a central problem for the McCain team. It would be hard to maintain this increasingly successful line of attack against Obama if McCain’s own VP had a history of the same propensity to blow with the political winds.
Sarah Palin, the first term governor from Alaska, is another one to pop up on VP lists. Much has been made of the phenomenon of disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters, especially women, failing to fall into line with Obama, so it is not surprising that some would tout a female running mate for McCain. But if Obama is attacked for lack of experience, what defense will McCain have when the Democrats point out her thin resume? Yes, she favors oil drilling, is a conservative reformer and might draw in some women voters, but the first rule of all vice presidents is to “do no harm.” By undermining McCain’s claim that experience is a critical consideration, she would do just that.
Although Romney and Palin may not be the answer, there is a serious concern about rounding out McCain’s domestic policy credentials and convincing voters he cares about more than just national security. As he begins his policy offensive this week on the economy, he must fend off concerns that he lacks focus on the bevy of domestic issues (e.g. employment, trade, entitlements) which concern voters. For that reason, two other Republicans, both with considerable economic experience, may get a second look.
Rob Portman offers an attractive portfolio of domestic experience. Hailing from the critical state of Ohio, Portman held jobs in the administration of both George W. Bush (as Director of OMB and then as U.S. Trade Representative) and his father (as Associate Counsel to the President and later as Director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs.) He also served twelve years in the House of Representatives. Described by one conservative publication as “bright, articulate, and photogenic” and “a rising star of the party even before he came to Congress in a special election in 1993,” he also sports an 89% lifetime conservative rating by the American Conservative Union.
He certainly is not a household name, nor is his profile and political reach sufficient to “deliver” his home state. Nevertheless, he passes several other critical tests: he is well experienced, will not offend the conservative base, and is unmistakably serious and well-respected on domestic policy. If McCain is intent on proving that national security is not the only focus of his campaign he could find few politicians with as much economic experience as Portman. Portman’s drawback: his service in two Bush administrations may reinforce Obama’s principle line of attack that McCain will simply be a continuation of the unpopular Bush administration.
Another name increasingly seen on VP lists who also can offer impressive domestic credentials is Chris Cox. He is currently chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Previously Cox served for sixteen years as a Congressman from California (where he chaired committees on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China and Homeland Security) and was a legal aide in the Reagan White House. He was tapped for a circuit court judgeship before Senator Barbara Boxer nixed the nomination. One conservative describes him as “brilliant, telegenic, extremely articulate, and deeply knowledgeable.”
His main drawback? As head of the SEC he has come under attack, primarily from the Wall Street Journal for not being more visible in addressing the Bear Stearns collapse. The charge is refuted by a review of his actual role in the crisis (and his conduct was indeed lauded by many neutral observers). Still, the Obama camp may well attack him as part of an administration which failed to anticipate economic troubles (and update the nation’s regulatory structure) until a crisis struck.
Despite potential attacks on a VP pick who served in the current administration McCain would be foolhardy to cross off his list everyone with federal government experience in the last seven years. McCain’s core appeal, or one of them, is that his administration will be ready to govern and will not be learning as it goes along, as his opponent will have to do. Just as Al Gore reinforced Bill Clinton’s appeal as a reformer from the New South, Portman and Cox will put an exclamation point on themes and qualities McCain wants voters to focus on: experience, competency, sober-mindedness, and a determination to find market-based solutions to the problems of the 21st century economy.
As far as political appeal, neither Portman or Cox to be sure is flashy. But then the McCain ticket is not going to win the presidency by overpowering the opposition with charisma or style. McCain needs to reassure the conservative base without frightening off independents. He would be hard pressed to find two public servants whose demeanor and tone (e.g. calm, professional and non-confrontational) are better suited to satisfy his center/right audience and to assume the vice presidential role.
Moreover, both of these VP candidates could actually help McCain govern effectively should he manage to get elected. The benefit of an experienced trade representative or an SEC chairman in troubled economic times can not be underestimated. If McCain is intent on preserving free trade as a cornerstone of U.S. policy and balancing competing demands of business, consumers and regulatory agencies, either one of these potential picks would offer serious and meaningful counsel.
As the economy moves front and center in the general election race, McCain must demonstrate that he comprehends and is committed to addressing voters’ pocket-book issues. By selecting a running mate who can actually help him meet the country’s domestic challenges he might take a step in the right direction.