Looking Out for Number Two

John McCain’s tortured relationship with the Republican base poses some unique problems for the the Arizona senator. Could the right veep make up for that?

The Republican base's platonic relationship with Sen. John McCain restricts the presidential hopeful's ability to appeal to the general electorate and could force the campaign to select a precision pit bull as a running mate. Given the lack of affection that the rank-and-file holds for McCain, the sidekick must get the base to the polls on election day by generating abject fear of the Democratic contender. That would allow McCain greater latitude to then appeal to the rest of the country. And if the running mate, and not McCain, launched these attacks, the senator could maintain a stance on the high ground, from which the senator could enunciate his support of multilateralism in soothing tones, as he did towards the end of May.

This strategy would not deviate, in some respects, from a traditional campaign playbook. Vice-presidential candidates have often been expected to play bad cop. According to some reports, the decorous Sen. John Edwards so thoroughly failed to fill this expected role that Kerry could hardly stand to speak to him towards the end of their campaign. Still, a few factors could make an attack from McCain's number two distinct by degrees and in substance. And the questions remain: where is the McCain campaign to find such a breed of running mate and what kind of attacks might be expected?


The Base

For both parties, the base is both asset and liability, with de riguer rigidity expected from the Democrats on trade and taxes and from the Republicans on anything concerning abortion and gays. Obama's handlers were put on the defensive earlier this year after Canadian television reported that an Obama economics advisor had told Canadian officials the senator's position on the North American Free Trade Agreement amounted to political maneuvering.

Both President Bushes were able to overcome what would appear to be their weaknesses with the Republican base. The elder Bush may have seemed distant to the rank-and-file, but those qualities were offset by his decorated military service in World War II and a general optimism towards Republicans. The younger Bush could not boast such service and his elite upbringing and education; inherited privileges; and an indulged young adulthood could have posed problems for him. But his adopted teetotalism and perceptible Texan drawl presumably worked in his favor. Still, if the accounts of David Kuo (formerly the second in command of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives) are to be believed, there was widespread condescension by the administration towards the religious base.

But the degree of the base's antipathy for McCain may be without recent precedence. Although McCain is more hawkish than even Bush on a range of foreign-policy issues, some of his positions on immigration, the environment, torture, stem-cell research and his opposition to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage have put McCain at odds with the rank-and-file. That disconnect, combined with the general distaste for Republican leadership among the general electorate, puts McCain in an especially difficult position. To win the election, he must draw out the base while demonstrating to the rest of the country that he will not be leading a McBush administration.

Recent polls highlight just how difficult McCain's position is. A USA Today/Gallup poll reports that two of three Americans are concerned that McCain would pursue policies too similar to those of President Bush. Most independents, the election's pivotal voters, said they are concerned about McCain-Bush similarities, with almost half reporting they are very concerned. But among Republicans, approval for President Bush remains high at 60 percent, versus just 28 percent nationwide. And among McCain's supporters, the approval rating is only slightly lower, at 55 percent. Those numbers demonstrate the degree to which McCain could alienate the base while trying to please the general electorate. Given a confluence of factors, the McCain team may have to be especially aggressive in its attacks on Obama.


The Attack

If McCain's lieutenant is to be leading the charge against Obama, then McCain's campaign has yet to begin. McCain's running mate certainly will be pointing to Obama's lack of consistencies on the FISA bill and public financing and his apparent backing away from his previously outlined sixteen-month withdrawal plan for Iraq. Independent voters may be nonplussed by those reversals, not only due to the change in policies but also as a reflection of Obama's character. Still, Obama's positions on those issues are most significant to more liberal voters that are beyond McCain's reach, and Obama is still generally seen as the potential agent of needed change in the election.

So the McCain camp needs something more. Calling Obama a liberal would have little mileage, since it is already well known that he had the highest liberal voting score of any senator in 2007, according to the National Journal's annual report. In order to knock Obama from his narrow lead, McCain's prospective veep must convince voters that Obama is worse than liberal-rather, that the senator is dangerous.

Such a strategy would require innuendo and other oblique arts of politics. It would be risky and has the potential to backfire. The perpetrator of such an attack would have to be calculated but very aggressive. And McCain would probably have to elegantly distance himself, at times, from some of the more frontal attacks, in classic good cop-bad cop interpretation.


The Pit Bull

It will not be easy for McCain to find someone of stature willing and able to effectively execute such a political strategy. More than likely, McCain would have to make the proposition more attractive by promising a running mate an important policy-crafting role in his administration.