John McCain provided crucial cover for John Kerry on his defense votes last week, vouching for his Senate colleague and friend’s toughness on national security. This was a priceless endorsement for Kerry, and it played on the front pages of both the Washington Post and the New York Times. There may be more at work here than McCain’s senatorial courtesy (not something he has been famous for to this point) or his smoldering animosity toward Bush. McCain is speaking as a potential member of the Kerry Cabinet.
Recent speculation has focused on McCain as a potential vice-presidential pick for Kerry. This doesn’t make much sense. The political differences are just too stark and would be difficult to defend in a campaign. It’s also not clear that McCain would want to be vice president, a second-fiddle job by its nature. There’s another post in the Kerry administration that makes much more sense and has been the focus of a rumor going around Capitol Hill–McCain as Kerry’s secretary of defense.
This would work on all sorts of levels. The Kerry team would obviously want to tap into McCain’s magic, so would be happy to have him in the cabinet. McCain as SecDef would project an image of toughness on national security, which Kerry would probably want given the current political environment. Also, the Democratic bench isn’t that deep when it comes to defense and military affairs, making McCain a natural to fill this hole. Finally, every administration wants to make some gesture toward bipartisanship, which is why Norman Mineta is in the Bush administration. And there is a direct precedent for McCain as secretary of defense in a Kerry administration–Bill Cohen, another Republican senator, as secretary of defense for Bill Clinton.
For McCain, this job would make sense as well. It would be a great capstone to his political career. It would accord with his personal interests and his family history–his father and grandfather were admirals, and McCain could match their achievements in his own way by running the Pentagon. Finally, it would cement his image as the impossible-to-categorize, beyond-partisanship American statesman. The media would eat it up.
So when McCain assists the Kerry campaign, he is not just helping his senatorial friend, but his potential boss.