Politics & Policy

McCain’s Veep Problem

If he chooses a solid conservative, he'll have a running mate who disagrees with him on some key issues.

John McCain faces a dilemma when it comes to choosing a vice president. He needs a running mate who will be a contrast to him in a few key ways — younger, more knowledgeable about economic issues, and, especially, more conservative. But if McCain selects a running mate whose conservative credentials are beyond dispute, he’ll be choosing a candidate who likely disagrees with him on some issues of great importance to the Republican base.

On Sunday, I spoke with two leading contenders for the McCain ticket, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, both in Washington for the annual meeting of the National Governors’ Association. While each expressed strong support for McCain, neither would deny differences with the candidate on two of the issues that have caused McCain the greatest trouble with the conservative base: immigration and campaign-finance reform.

“I’m the right-wing nut — you’ve got to remember that,” Sanford told me when I asked about immigration. “So it’s not surprising that I’d be in the camp that says, ‘Secure the borders first. It’s a federal requirement.’”

The base’s immigration revolt against McCain, George W. Bush, and other party leaders didn’t bother Sanford; in fact, he appears to have taken some pleasure in it. “I think it’s good to listen to the electorate in the world of politics,” Sanford told me. “When enough people are out there raising Cain, making noise, saying I’m upset — I mean, Lindsey Graham is a very popular political figure back home, but he was booed at the convention on the immigration issue. Well, you do that in enough places around the country, and lo and behold, [politicians] stand up and say, You know what? I got the message. I was wrong on this one. I mean, that’s pretty cool, and it says the system is working.”

As for his own views, Sanford told me that after securing the borders, he’d support “a bill that said to every employer out there, if you hire an illegal you’re in serious trouble” — something he’s trying to do in South Carolina. Beyond that, he explained that he understands the practical problem of trying “to pull off the largest migration in the history of mankind and send 12 million people back outside the United States.” But he added: “Would I have a problem with it, were it to occur? No.”

Pawlenty listed several actions he’s taken, some by executive order, to crack down on illegal immigration in Minnesota. When I asked about McCain, Pawlenty said, “I think he acknowledges that he took the wrong approach on immigration, in the sense that he had it out of sequence, and that he has to secure the borders first and foremost and people want to see that and feel it and be confident of if before there is any further discussion about immigration.” Pawlenty expressed relief that McCain no longer expects the McCain-Kennedy bill to move forward in Congress. “I think you can take him at his word that he has heard the message,” Pawlenty said, “that he realizes the position that he took on immigration was not where the country wanted him to be.”

On campaign-finance reform, McCain’s signature accomplishment in the Senate, both men described policy preferences that are greatly at odds with McCain’s. “I’ve come to the point in my career, watching campaign finance reform, having been involved in it somewhat at a state level, that the premise that government can control this stuff, or should control this stuff, is flawed,” Pawlenty told me. “No matter what they do to regulate it, it always seeps out somewhere else, so I think a better system would probably have to have full disclosure, real time, online, instant disclosure — but quit pretending, both as a constitutional principle, or as a matter of politics, that government can contain this.”

“What we ought to do is maximize disclosure, period,” Sanford told me. “You’ll never completely take money out of the political process, and therefore, put it on the Internet, you can look it up tomorrow, you can see exactly where the money came from. I mean, all we’re doing now is moving money to the 527s and all these other organizations as a way of circumventing limits.”

Both men praised McCain’s desire to fix the system — “I don’t begrudge him for trying to do something on that,” Sanford told me — but it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that both think McCain’s reform crusade was profoundly misguided.

Yet both enthusiastically support McCain, and both stressed to me that, in light of their agreement with him on big issues like Iraq, the war on terror, and federal spending, their differences on a few other issues did not diminish their zeal to help him win election in November. “John McCain is a conservative,” Pawlenty told me. “Now, there are some particular issues that have disappointed conservatives. He acknowledges that, and he has got some work to do to convince and reassure people that he is in fact a conservative…. But if you look at the totality of his record over the total time he’s been in Congress, it would seem to be unfair and incomplete to label him as something other than a conservative. And if the definition of conservative is going to be so narrowly construed as to only be those things to the right of John McCain, we’re going to have a fairly narrow market share.”

“Everything in politics is relative to something else,” Sanford told me. “Perfection is not for this world, but the question is: Relative to what we’ll be facing in November, how does he stack up? And he stacks up quite well.”

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