Last Tuesday night, after Vermont, Rhode Island, Ohio, and Texas gave John S. McCain the delegates he needed to clinch his party’s Presidential nomination, good-fellowship reigned—among Republicans, that is. “Senator McCain has run an honorable campaign, because he’s an honorable man,” McCain’s last serious intraparty rival said. McCain returned the compliment: “I want to commend, again, my friend Governor Mike Huckabee.” McCain does not always use the word “friend” in a friendly spirit; this time, though, he sounded perfectly amiable.
The celestial choirs were a little more muffled the next day, in the White House Rose Garden. President Bush, offering the nominee-elect his (somewhat superfluous) endorsement, referred to McCain as “my friend” and himself as “your friend.” McCain, for his part, abjured the “f” word. He did say that he looked forward to their campaigning together, “in keeping with the President’s heavy schedule.” In the eight minutes that remained of the ceremony, the candidate contrived to mention the President’s schedule four more times, always stressing how very busy it must be.
Despite the manifold signs of a perfect Democratic storm this year, McCain is in an enviable position. He can get some sleep. He can raise some money. He can watch with interest as Hillary Clinton spends her millions trying to dismember Barack Obama and Obama spends his trying to keep his limbs attached. Meanwhile, he can continue to tack between the two ideological and stylistic identities that have got him where he is today—the rebel and the regular, the Rooseveltian (Theodore) and the Reaganite, the “maverick” and the “conservative”—without veering so far to one side that he forfeits the advantages of the other.
Over the years, McCain has performed this delicate task with some success, pairing up positions like Noah bringing animals aboard the ark. He plumped for lobbying reform but has lobbyists running his campaign. He opposed enacting Bush’s tax cuts for the rich but supports extending them indefinitely. He supported a “patients’ bill of rights” but refuses to treat health care as itself a right. He voted against banning same-sex marriage in the Constitution but favors banning it state by state. He once disdained the likes of the Reverend Jerry Falwell (who blamed AIDS on God’s alleged hatred of a “society that tolerates homosexuals”) but now embraces the likes of Pastor John Hagee (who called the Roman Catholic Church “the great whore”). He was for starting the Iraq war but against the way it was being fought; now he’s for the way it’s being fought but against discussing whether it should have been started. There is at least one question, however, to which two answers won’t do.
“WITH MCCAIN ATOP TICKET, TALK SHIFTS TO SPOT NO. 2,” the Times headlined the day after Spot No. 1 was definitively filled. According to the accompanying story, McCain has no Vice-Presidential short list and no process for making one, “merely a process to find a process.” Nevertheless, the paper assembled a list of its own, based, one assumes, partly on conversations with persons in the know. At the top: Governors Tim Pawlenty, of Minnesota; Charlie Crist, of Florida; Jon Huntsman, Jr., of Utah; and Mark Sanford, of South Carolina. The “mentioned as well” category included three former governors: Tom Ridge, of Pennsylvania, and two of McCain’s vanquished primary opponents, Mitt Romney, of Massachusetts, and Huckabee, of Arkansas.
What shines through this list of names is the banality of the calculations behind it. All are off-the-shelf conservatives, ranging from the socially mild (Crist) to the fiscally rabid (Sanford, who labels himself “a right-wing nut”). All are white males. All, as governors or ex-governors, compensate for McCain’s dearth of administrative experience. Several might help move some battleground state from purple to red. None would disturb the peace—emphatically including the peace of the Democratic Party, if it ever regains it.
This space is usually devoted to pristine moral reasoning, but, hell, it’s an election year. Let’s get down and dirty. If McCain really wants to have it all—to refurbish his maverick image without having to flip-flop on the panderings that have tarnished it; to galvanize the attention of the press, the nation, and the world; to make a bold play for the center without seriously alienating “the base”—then he can avail himself of a highly interesting option: Condoleezza Rice.
To deal first with the obvious: Rice may be “only” the second woman and the second African-American to be Secretary of State, but she is indisputably the highest-ranking black female official ever to have served in any branch of the United States government. Her nomination to a constitutional executive office would cost McCain the votes of his party’s hardened racists and incorrigible misogynists. They are surely fewer in number, though, than the people who would like to participate in breaking the glass ceiling of race or gender but, given the choice, would rather do so in a more timid way, and/or without abandoning their party. And with Rice on the ticket the Republicans could attack Clinton or Obama with far less restraint.
By choosing Rice, McCain would shackle himself anew to Bush’s Iraq war. But it’s hard to see how those chains could get much tighter than he has already made them. Rice would fit nicely into McCain’s view of the war as worth fighting but, until Donald Rumsfeld’s exit from the Pentagon, fought clumsily. And it would be fairly easy to establish a story line that would cast Rice as having been less Bush’s enabler than a loyal subordinate who nevertheless pushed gently from within for a more reasonable, more diplomatic approach.
Rice is already fourth in line for the Presidency, and getting bumped up three places would be a shorter leap than any of the three Presidential candidates propose to make. It’s true that her record in office has been one of failure, from downgrading terrorism as a priority before 9/11 to ignoring the Israel-Palestine problem until (almost certainly) too late. But this does not seem to have done much damage to her popularity. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken when opposition to the Iraq war was approaching its height, she enjoyed a “favorable-unfavorable” rating of nearly two to one. The conservative rank and file likes her. Though she once described herself as “mildly pro-choice,” she is agile enough to complete the journey to mildly pro-life. And she is a preacher’s daughter.
Choosing Rice would be a trick. Her failures would be buried in an avalanche of positive publicity for a personal story as yet only vaguely known to the broad public. (One of the little girls who died in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing was her playmate? We didn’t know that!) But the trick would not be an entirely cynical one. Her ascension, though nowhere near as momentous a breakthrough as the election of Obama or Clinton, would be a breakthrough all the same. In this connection, a kind word for George W. Bush may be in order. By appointing first Colin Powell and then Rice to the most senior job in the Cabinet, a job of global scope, Bush changed the way millions of white Americans think about black public officials. This may turn out to the most positive legacy of his benighted Presidency.