Democrats Don't Need McCain To Win In '04

15 April 2004

By Stentor Danielson

Nobody seems to actually like John Kerry. Even though he steamrolled through the Democratic primaries -- losing only three states, to three different challengers -- his major asset is not his charisma (which rivals Al Gore's) or his vision for the country's future (does he have one?). His major asset is who he's not: George W. Bush.

The depth of Anybody But Bush sentiment is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the speculation over who Kerry should select as his running mate. It seems that the vice-president doesn't have an actual job -- at least, nobody seems to be judging the potential candidates on their ability to carry out the duties of the office. Rather, they're chosen for their electoral pull. Thus the most popular choice seems to be former candidate and North Carolina Senator John Edwards, on the theory that Southerners are prejudiced against anyone without a drawl.

One strikingly popular choice for the next inhabitant of our country's undisclosed location is the maverick but loyal Republican Senator John McCain. McCain first made waves as a candidate in 2000, when politically disillusioned liberals swooned over the straight-talking pro-lifer. He continued to win admiration from across the aisle as the champion of campaign finance reform, an idea that Democrats loved until the day after it was passed, when they realized that it would limit their campaign finances. Lately he's been in the headlines for his willingness to point out that, contrary to the Republican talking points, Kerry is not in fact an anti-American terrorist appeaser.

With liberals firmly on board and progressives taking a reluctantly pragmatic look at the situation, the next target of the Anybody But Bush bandwagon is dissatisfied moderates. There have been rumblings from numerous quarters -- deficit hawks appalled at Bush's "borrow and spend" budgets, anglers unhappy with the mercury emissions poisoning their fish, veterans and military families upset with the benefits cuts that the president favors -- that could push Kerry over the top in the voting booth. McCain's appeal to this sector seems obvious. He has demonstrated appeal across the political spectrum. The storyline of a Republican driven to cross party lines by Bush's nefariousness is powerful, not to mention the "government of national unity" image that comes with a bipartisan ticket. And having two decorated Vietnam veterans would give more oomph to criticism of Bush's military misadventures. Kerry-McCain has been blessed by many liberal pundits with the highest of praises: "electable."

McCain himself has fed speculation by refusing, when asked, to rule out considering the vice-presidential slot. The rumor mill got so out of control that he had to do some damage control, saying Sunday on Meet The Press "No, no, and no. I will not leave the Republican Party." As interesting as a Kerry-McCain run would have been, reasonable Democrats ought to be relieved that the Arizona Senator is out of the running.

Consider another example of McCain's appeal to liberals. He was lauded -- and rightly so -- for co-sponsoring (with Democrat Joe Lieberman) a bill imposing caps on climate-changing carbon emissions. He sounds like a great companion for Kerry, who is nowhere more liberal than on environmental issues. But the League of Conservation Voters gives him a 53% rating for his votes in 2003 -- good for a Republican (and well above his own career average of 29%), but nothing to brag about around Democrats. Kerry, on the other hand, scored 100% on votes that he actually participated in (he missed many in order to stay on the campaign trail), a record consistent with his past. And this is one of McCain's best issues.

Now consider some of the questions that will really decide the election. On the same episode of Meet The Press that he declined to be Kerry's running mate, McCain reiterated his support for the war in Iraq, backing the idea of democratizing the Middle East by force and standing behind the need to prevent Saddam Hussein from using his nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. That will not square with the view of Kerry and his supporters that the President misled the country in leading us to war.

It's nice to be united in our hatred of Bush at the ballot box, but starting in January 2005, the winning team will actually have to govern the country. Al Gore and Dick Cheney have established a precedent for vice-presidents being extremely active in shaping administration policy. That would be a disaster once Bush got back to Crawford and the Kerry-McCain team had to design policies other than "win the election." At best, they could set out to "heal the partisan rift" with a series of mild and unobjectionable -- and hence relatively inconsequential -- measures.

But perhaps the most effective criticism of a Kerry-McCain ticket is the pragmatic one: it's not electable. Will the public really buy that someone famous for being a man of principle is willing to sell it all out to oust a distasteful fellow traveler? Think back to 2000. The second biggest story about Gore's choice of Lieberman as a running mate (number one being "did you know hes Jewish?") was questioning about how Lieberman could reconcile his centrist views with Gore's center-left ones. Imagine the reaction to a longtime conservative joining forces with a noted liberal. The bad press would spill over onto Kerry as well, reinforcing the appearance that he's a flip-flopper whose policy stances are dictated by politics rather than conviction. Meanwhile, progressives will lose faith in the possibilities of a Kerry administration. It's hard to suck it up in order to save Roe v. Wade when one half of the "lesser of two evils" ticket is an ardent opponent of abortion.

McCain will serve the country best as an agent of change from within the Republican Party. The Democratic Party has many qualified and liberal vice-presidential prospects in its ranks, from Edwards to Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius. Why should they dilute their message even more on the dubious premise that a Kerry-McCain ticket would take the White House away from George Bush?

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