Politics & Policy

The High-Road, Low-Road Veep Model

Is McCain the one?

With all the recent speculation about George Bush’s choice for veep seemingly focused on industrial-state governors for geography-based electoral-college gains, it’s worth remembering that there’s another model used by successful Republican presidents in the past. Call it the High-Road, Low-Road model.

Dwight Eisenhower, for example, chose Richard Nixon in 1952 with the explicit purpose of unleashing the hardball Californian on the Democratic Stevenson-Kefauver ticket while the popular Ike stuck to a unifying and optimistic high-road national message. Nearly two decades later, presidential candidate Nixon chose the relatively unknown Maryland governor Spiro Agnew with the same model in mind. Aware that the media expected a vitriolic campaign effort, Nixon stuck with the unifying themes of a return to domestic tranquility (law and order), an end to the war in Vietnam, and an appeal to middle-class “forgotten Americans.” Meanwhile, Agnew was unleashed as an attack-dog against the Democrats. In the 1970 mid-term elections, Agnew was even more effective — helping, for example, conservative New York Republican James Buckley to defeat liberal Republican Charles Goodell and liberal Democrat Richard Ottinger with his radic-lib attacks.

In terms of Bush’s 2000 choice, it could well turn out that John McCain fits the High-Road, Low-Road mold. Gov. Bush, by temperament, is not an attack dog. Nor would this fit his un-Gingrich image as a compassionate conservative. But McCain could be just the one to do the Lord’s work in the autumn campaign. By his own admission, the Arizona senator is in fact best qualified to “beat Gore like a drum.” And who is better qualified to raise Clinton-Gore campaign-finance abuse and other truth-twisting issue than McCain? While the national media may not treat McCain quite as kindly in this role as they did during the primary season, McCain will retain his reformist credibility. He will also hang on to a good deal of Teflon as a much-decorated Vietnam hero.

Then there’s another model to think about. Once he disposed of the goofy idea of choosing Gerald Ford as his running mate, Ronald Reagan settled on George Bush during the 1980 Republican convention in Detroit. Why? Principally because Bush finished second in the Republican primaries, even winning Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. So, in effect, Reagan decided to employ Bush in the industrial states, though Bush hailed from Texas and, of course, had roots in Connecticut.

In many ways, McCain, who finished second in the primary season, would be much more effective in battleground states such as Michigan (whose primary he won), Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, than their frequently touted governors. This is one reason why I thought it was quite interesting that when the Texas governor was in Michigan last week, he made no reference to John Engler but did use that opportunity to mention that he could look favorably on McCain as a veep candidate and that he intends to bring it up in his forthcoming meeting with the Arizonan. Then again, Team Bush recently announced that they are bringing on senior McCain lieutenants Vin Weber, Ken Duberstein, and Rick Davis into prominent campaign roles.

Of course, there are policy disagreements between Bush and McCain, especially on campaign-finance reform, tax cuts vs. federal-debt reduction, and relations with the Christian Right. But this is nothing compared to the gulf that separated Bush the elder from Reagan. After all, it was Papa Bush who called Reagan’s tax cuts voodoo economics. And Bush Sr. campaigned back then as pro-choice; but somehow all this was forgotten when the Gipper made the veep telephone call in Detroit. Swigging a can of beer, Bush Sr. accepted. History could repeat. While McCain keeps telling folks he won’t accept a veep nomination, somehow it still seems plausible that the loyal soldier would do his duty.

On the surface, the geography of a Texas-Arizona ticket makes no sense. But that’s no worse than the Arkansas-Tennessee mix that worked well for Clinton-Gore. What’s more, having McCain inside the tent makes more political sense than leaving him outside. Remember the adage: “Keep your friends close but hold your enemies even closer.” How better to control the frequently hip-shooting McCain than to have him on the ticket? And he has demonstrated an ability to reach out to Democrats and independents. He has also been successful in Arizona in bringing in Hispanic and Latino votes. Surely, Bush can reach an accommodation on campaign-finance reform. McCain does have solid positions on the Internet tax moratorium and expanding super-saver IRA accounts for the investor class. And he is pro-life. The Arizonan would have to give up his debt-elimination obsession, but in the big-picture scheme of things that’s small potatoes.

Bush has chosen former congressman and defense secretary Dick Cheney to be in charge of the veep selection process. Cheney is a politically shrewd conservative who will undoubtedly play an important role in a Bush administration. Look for Cheney to present all the best options, be they obvious or not. Sometimes the best choice is sitting there in your own backyard.

Republicans want to win this year, and a John McCain vice-presidential candidacy could be a big-tent party unifier.


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