Judging from Byron’s fascinating reporting both yesterday and today, it seems to me like the McCain folks might be ignoring one absolutely crucial element of the reaction to picking Lieberman for VP: the effect it would have on the convention itself. Both candidates count on their convention to give them a bit of a lift, to help them put their best face before the country, and to energize their most enthusiastic true believers – the type of people they will need for the ground game in November.
Barack Obama is now heading into a convention week in a relatively weak state, certainly his weakest of the campaign so far, and the Democratic convention will no doubt be a bit more tense than he would have hoped. But the convention is still very likely to do him some important good, and to do no harm to his candidacy. By bringing the core activists together at precisely this moment for an orchestrated pep rally it will give them some strength and confidence just when they need it.
If McCain were to head into a convention having just announced a pick like Lieberman — a man very well liked by Republicans for his views on one set of issues, but not on many others, and therefore a perfect cabinet member but a very imperfect VP choice — he would find himself in a very uncomfortable position in Minneapolis. He would be surrounded by people he had just upset, would have brought lots of activists together at just the moment he had also opened up a huge rift over an issue that Republicans have managed reasonably well in recent years, and will have made the differences between Lieberman and much of the party — and especially the differences over abortion — the central issue of the convention and the main topic of conversation among the observers and reporters who will color the public’s impression of the event (and thus will have made it unlikely that the party’s best public face will be put forward). It would surely turn the convention into a net negative for the campaign, and perhaps a very significant one. Just at the moment when the Republican party as an institution formally places its trust in him, McCain would be dividing and weakening it, and with it also his campaign and his chances.
In a way, Lieberman represents the most likely short-term growth opportunity for the Republican coalition: security hawks who are not otherwise conservatives but could become so by cooperating with the right over time. It’s not a large group, but it’s a significant one in the country, and an important one in Washington too. Having them slowly become Republicans — which is entirely plausible in a McCain administration — would be very good for Republicans, for a whole range of reasons. But surely picking Lieberman for VP at this stage is the absolute worst way to try to bring that about. It would bring into sharp relief all the differences between them and most Republicans, and would make slow and subtle rightward movement on their part all but impossible.
You just have to believe McCain and his folks have thought about this, and the Lieberman talk is a head fake. If so it’s a good one.