For McCain, There’s Only One Perfect Candidate for Veep

Stuart Rothenberg May 1, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

We all hear the same names mentioned as prospective running mates for John McCain: former Office of Management and Budget Director and one-time U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and even former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.

Each one would bring something to the ticket. Some come from crucial swing states that could help McCain reach 270 electoral votes. A number are governors, adding a non- Washington, D.C., piece to the ticket. By most standards, all are good-looking and articulate.

And yet, none of them would change the partisan political equation in the fall election, and I’m not at all sure any of them would increase McCain’s chances of winning in the fall. Certainly none of them would constitute a statement by McCain about his presidency, the kind of statement that would send a message to voters.

There is, however, somebody who would fill that bill and therefore be a near-perfect pick for McCain: Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Lieberman, 66, served in the Connecticut House (including a stint as Majority Leader) before winning election as state attorney general. In 1988, he won a Senate seat by upsetting incumbent Sen. Lowell Weicker, a very liberal Republican who was both arrogant and aloof.

After easy re-election victories in 1994 and 2000, Lieberman, of course, narrowly lost renomination in 2006, after anti-war groups and angry voters mobilized behind Democratic primary opponent Ned Lamont. But spurning the pleas of his Democratic colleagues, Lieberman ran for another term as an Independent and defeated Lamont by 10 points, with solid support from the state’s GOP voters.

Lieberman’s selection to McCain’s ticket would send a clear message about bipartisanship and about McCain’s desire to change the way things are done. While the Democratic nominee surely will talk about bringing people together and “change,” a truly bipartisan McCain-Lieberman ticket would trump any and all Democratic rhetoric.

The selection of Lieberman would have particular appeal to independent voters, who are likely to be a key swing group later this year.

Second, Lieberman is clearly ready and able to be president, if need be. Even many of his critics acknowledge that he is a man of accomplishment, experience and integrity. Since Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore selected Lieberman for his running mate in 2000, Democrats would have a hard time attacking the Connecticut Senator on anything but his position on Iraq.

Third, selecting Lieberman would anger both conservatives and Democrats. In other words, it’s a “two-fer” for McCain, who seems to relish those moments when he can stick it to people he doesn’t like. Just think how McCain would chuckle at the thought of annoying both ends of the political spectrum.

But wouldn’t social conservatives, in particular, go bananas, since Lieberman is moderate or liberal on most issues other than Iraq? He supports abortion rights, generally votes with organized labor and is an unapologetic environmentalist. Conservatives would revolt, wouldn’t they?

Probably not. While there would be the usual fist-pounding from some “movement conservatives,” their anger at the selection would quickly dissipate when they saw the fury unleashed by liberals and Democratic bloggers.

When, during the previous cycle’s Senate race, I wrote a column that included some favorable mentions of Lieberman, I was belted by bloggers on the left, all of whom see the Connecticut Senator as a sellout and the chief cheerleader of a war they regard as outrageous. They wouldn’t be able to control their fury, which would both allow McCain to appear reasonable in the face of their anger and make Lieberman more palatable to those on the right.

In addition, McCain strategists could note that Lieberman very publicly criticized Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky as “immoral” and has spoken over the years about the dangers of violence coming from Hollywood, another conservative bogeyman. That too would placate some conservatives.

And Lieberman is an observant Jew, which would resonate with both evangelicals and Jewish voters.

But doesn’t McCain need someone significantly younger as a running mate? Lieberman is only a few years younger than McCain, so the ticket would be very old, especially compared with the likely Democratic ticket.

Possibly, but does anyone really believe that by picking a 50-year-old governor McCain would erase age as an issue and neutralize the Democrats’ advantage on change? It wouldn’t.

Wouldn’t the selection of Lieberman only emphasize Iraq and McCain’s support for the surge, making an unpopular war even more front and center for McCain?

Of course, but does anyone really believe that Democrats won’t wrap the surge around McCain’s neck if that’s in their interest? It doesn’t matter who McCain picks for his running mate. Even if he picks a governor from Minnesota or South Carolina, McCain owns the surge already.

I don’t expect McCain to pick Lieberman. It’s a quirky pick with risks, some of which I’ve noted in this column. But no matter whom he selects, McCain ought to think outside the box. Picking a younger governor who is acceptable to conservatives but brings little else to the table would be passing up an opportunity to make a statement.