McCain-Lieberman Could Be Just the Ticket

From time to time a conservative pundit has suggested that John McCain choose a Democrat for his vice presidential running mate. That usually has been met with howls of derision from other conservatives who find the notion preposterous. But is it?

The main reason is obvious: the untimely demise of McCain would allow a Democrat to ascend to the White House, forfeiting his party's victory and reversing the popular mandate for a Republican president. (Let's leave aside for now whether a McCain victory would represent a Republican mandate or a miracle, despite his party affiliation.)

But let's consider if one specific Democrat, Senator Joseph Lieberman, might make sense as a VP selection for McCain. McCain at times has fueled speculation about Lieberman with effusive praise:

"He'd be a great partner in any endeavor, including joining America together," McCain said in response to a question on the Lieberman factor. "Let's reach across the aisle, let's work together for America. That's what Joe Lieberman is all about."

Indeed, Lieberman would benefit McCain in at least four ways.

First, just as Al Gore helped reinforce a certain image (i.e., the New South moderate Democrat) rather than balance the ticket for Bill Clinton, Lieberman would offer proof that McCain is a bipartisan maverick, willing to bypass the demands of his party for the sake of his country. This would be an ideal way to end the divide between the parties and return, especially in foreign policy, to a unified spirit by selecting a Democrat, and one who himself put country above party in supporting an unpopular war.

Second, Lieberman can help him win a critical group essential to McCain's victory: Democrats. Will Marshall, co-founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, noted recently that Lieberman would help McCain "run a campaign that transcends the limited reach of the Republican coalition." The Republican brand has been damaged in the remains of the Bush administration. Party identification is down, the money advantage has been lost, and the generic poll numbers are atrocious.

McCain therefore must garner not just independents but many Democrats to win in November. So, what better way than to put one on the ballot with him and run as a unity ticket, masking to the greatest degree possible that McCain is, after all, a Republican? And yes, Lieberman could help lure already wary Jewish voters away from Barack Obama -- although Obama's supporters insist his Jewish support is solid.

Third, Lieberman might just put Connecticut in play. In a recent Rasmussen poll Obama led McCain by a scant three points. Adding Lieberman to the ticket could give McCain a shot at the state's seven electoral votes, a small but perhaps valuable find in a close election year. At the very least, Obama might have to spend some resources to hold down a traditionally blue state.

Fourth, Lieberman boasts a soothing, calm, and reassuring persona, which is both critical for someone who might ascend to the Oval Office and suggests, however subtly, that concerns about McCain's temperament are misplaced or exaggerated. After all, if Lieberman, the picture of civility and calm, is willing to climb on board with McCain, then the implication would be that voters shouldn't be too concerned that McCain might be a hot-head ready to blow.

All this is well and good, but there are some real problems here.

First and foremost there is the succession issue. Vice presidents are the hedge against a future catastrophe and the prospect that Republicans would in essence forfeit an election win is deeply troubling, understandably so, to McCain's party.

Then there are some fundamental policy issues. Lieberman is pro-choice and voted against Sam Alito for the Supreme Court. His selection might have the potential to send the conservative base into orbit, wrecking the fragile truce which McCain has crafted with social conservatives. They are already warning McCain not to try it. Richard Land, leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, was recently quoted as saying: "If he picks a pro-choice candidate, it will suppress the base. ... [McCain] can't win without evangelical support.''

McCain himself has said that it would be hard to select a pro-choice running mate. And the fact that Lieberman agrees with McCain on campaign finance reform and global warming would only serve to fuel the "he likes Democrats more than us" sentiment on the Right.

There nevertheless might be ways to mitigate these problems. For example, Lieberman might pledge that if he ever succeeded during McCain's term he would not run for a subsequent term as an incumbent. In other words, he would simply complete McCain's term, but not hand over the power and influence of an incumbency to McCain's rival party. It would not be entirely satisfactory to Republicans, although it might lessen the blow.

Second, on the issue of abortion, it is possible for Lieberman to reach an understanding with McCain and voters that, as Rudy Giuliani did, he would adhere to certain positions if he succeeded which would not substantively change pro-life statutory arrangements (e.g., leave in place the Mexico City policy and the Hyde Amendment). Still, it is not clear whether Lieberman would accept such positions or, more importantly, whether it would smack of gamesmanship, ruining the very qualities (e.g., integrity) which made Lieberman attractive in the first place.

And as for the Supreme Court, this is trickier still. Would Lieberman and McCain agree to a list of acceptable choices? Again this seems too clever by half and destined to raise more questions than it answers. (What if people on the list die or become unavailable? Wouldn't the list have to be revealed to actually satisfy Republicans?) Moreover, this does not solve the issue of potentially 200 lower court judicial appointments.

In short, a Lieberman vice presidency is enticing on many levels, especially for national security conservatives, but in the end may well be unworkable. The steps needed to circumscribe his normal presidential discretion that would be required to calm the Republican base would likely prove unwieldy. Moreover, the deal-making over critical issues like the Supreme Court would raise even more concerns about McCain's fidelity to conservative positions.

That said, the fact that a lifelong Democrat, albeit a now independent one, in national office would not just vote for McCain but campaign vigorously for him is remarkable. And McCain might be wise to make a more concrete pledge to put him in a McCain cabinet, powerful evidence that he will reach across party lines to end the era of partisan bickering.

That in itself would be no small thing.