A CBS news poll released today finds that 30 percent of voters say that the candidates' vice-presidential picks will have a great deal of influence on their decision, twice the number who responded in kind in 2000. Among those still undecided, 48 percent say the choices will influence their vote. Additionally, independents are more likely than partisans to be swayed by McCain and Obama's veep choices.
These numbers indicate something that should be eminently clear to both candidates: The political center is up for grabs and, as it seems to do every four years, probably will decide the election. Team Hope is well aware of their candidate's record, and it's no wonder that two red-state moderates -- Evan Bayh and Tim Kaine -- are at the top of Obama's list. Large is the contingent of voters that has grown tired of 7 1/2 years of President Bush, yet finds something untrustworthy about Obama.
It must be said once again that McCain does not need to mollify the so-called "evangelical" wing of the Republican Party. Those who voted for Mike Huckabee -- who think the greatest danger facing America is not Islamic extremism, out-of-control budget deficits or the looming collapse of Social Security, but rather gay people getting married -- will inevitably in line with the pro-life, pro-defense McCain. McCain has not only gained Huckabee as a vocal supporter, but has been endorsed by many so-called "evangelical" leaders like John Hagee. Some of these people might stay home simply based on their dislike for McCain occasionally kicking them in the teeth since he arrived in Washington, but the vast majority will fall in line. Simply because McCain nominates a Romney or Huckabee or Pawlenty as his VP will hardly mollify these voters. They will dislike McCain based on his record of poking the conservative base in the eye from time to time, and the Senior Senator's VP choice will have very little to do with it. This contingent of voters -- who would ignore the potential catastrophe facing conservatism and the country in general if Obama is indeed elected, and stay home out of protest -- is nominal at best.
McCain must first tout his legitimately conservative credentials and lifetime rating of 82 from the American Conservative Union -- pro-life, pro-defense, anti-pork and an originalist on judges -- to play to the base. This is easy, as McCain has championed each of these issues, and the Changemaker's extremist positions on the other side make him easy to distinguish.
Secondly, however, he must expand the Republican tent. More voters now identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans, and the independent contingent grows larger every election cycle. McCain must make a statement about the type of administration he intends to run, he must drum up interest among independents who are intrigued by Obama's nonsensical message, and, perhaps most importantly, must find another way to distance himself from the Bush Era.
I still endorse Condoleeza Rice as the best choice for McCain. However, the political realities of the unpopularity of the GOP brand -- thanks in large part to Bush, Rove and Delay taking the party over a cliff -- are a clear strike against her. If McCain chooses to avoid Rice or Sarah Palin (who, oddly, decided to go out of her way to endorse one of the Changemaker's energy policies the other day), Lieberman must be at the top of the list. Such a move would be virtually unprecedented, and although the Howard Deans and Charlie Rangels of the left would howl with shouts of "warmonger" and "traitor," such a move would put a full-court press on the political center. McCain and Lieberman are close friends, and the Connecticut senator still has strong allies within the Democratic Party (after all, he still caucuses with them).
This is not to say "evangelicals" wouldn't be horrified, or that Rush Limbaugh wouldn't rail against the choice from now 'til November. It's simply to point out that a McCain-Lieberman ticket would be incredibly attractive to the political center, and those people are the ones who decide each election.
Perhaps the most key factor cutting in Lieberman's favor is that Obama has opened the door to a discussion about bipartisanship with his nonsensical rhetoric. McCain not only has Obama's extremist record to highlight, but could employ Lieberman as a highly regarded attack dog to shoot holes in the Changemaker's nonexistent record of rising above the partisan fray. Voters must be made aware that the Pope of Hope has no significant bipartisan accomplishments, nor has he ever made an effort to break from his party on anything of substance. McCain, conversely, was attacked throughout the primary season for the high crime of breaking from the GOP in order to forge bipartisan solutions to otherwise unsolvable problems. Who better to draw this distinction than Lieberman? Such attacks could be lethal.
McCain is, after all, the original maverick. As the underdog, why not take one last shot at stepping outside the box?
I think it would be great fun.