With the economy stuck in a slump, Mitt Romney ought to be soaring in the polls. Yet, thanks to his stumble-laden campaign, he is underperforming. In recent weeks, he has been on the defensive about his Bain Capital days and his refusal to release tax returns. A trip to England, Israel, and Poland did nothing to enhance his claims to either statesmanship or competence. He needs a game changer. And here's one option: tapping John McCain as his running mate.
McCain is indeed a two-time presidential loser who has always had a tenuous relationship with the Republican Party's base, and he and Romney don't seem to be the best of buds after their bruising primary clash in 2008. But if it's all about doing whatever it takes to become CEO of the United States, Romney might fare best with the veteran Republican senator as his wing man. Consider the following:
- Pizzazz without novelty. Selecting McCain would be a surprise. It would show that Romney, a bland candidate on his better days, can be daring without being stupid. (The Palin pick—that was daring and stupid.) Naming McCain as his junior partner would stir things up without resorting to worrying novelty. The guy is a known quantity and qualified. Romney, who too often appears preprogrammed (and whose policies are pedestrian), could pick another old, wealthy white guy and still have a moment of boldness—without great risk.
Romney has lurched so far to the right that he has undermined his appeal to independents. McCain was once the darling of this set.
- Independents' remorse. The election at this point is all about those few independents and middle-of-the-roaders in a handful of swing states who have not yet made up their mind in these highly polarized times. McCain could appeal to those indie voters who punched the ballot for Barack Obama last time and who are now disappointed that the president hasn't fully turned around the economy. Here would be a chance for a makeup vote, a do-over. How often in life does that happen? Also, Romney has lurched so far to the right that he has undermined his appeal to independents. McCain was once the darling of this set. (See New Hampshire, 2000.) True, it's been a few years since then. He's a bit rusty in romancing the I-gang. But McCain can court these voters better than Tim Pawlenty or Rob Portman.
- No foreign policy amateur. This election is not being driven by national security concerns. Nevertheless, when Romney was overseas, he revealed he has no game on the international relations front. He and other GOPers have spent the past year blasting Obama as an amateur, but Romney came across as a bumbler. He failed at the obvious obligations abroad (don't insult an ally, don't fuel passions in the Middle East). The trip prompted the question: Is he ready for prime-time Stratego? And on foreign policy, Romney has surrounded himself with George W. Bush leftovers—hardly a popular crowd for an electorate that didn't fancy their war in Iraq and has grown tired and skeptical of the conflict in Afghanistan. McCain, a Vietnam POW, is a hawk, but he brings his own brand to bear on these matters. With him in the copilot seat, Romney's national security cred would not be an issue.
There are possible drawbacks.
- Boom! McCain can be a loose cannon on a flight deck. He's no team player and would have a tough time sticking to the message-of-the-nanosecond crafted by Romney HQ. He pops off. But that's part of his, uh, charm. Look at Joe Biden. Obama knew of his propensity to say what shouldn't be said, yet the White House has survived Biden's Bideness. In fact, Biden and the Obama crew have masterfully presented the veep as a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kinda guy who just might blurt out what he really thinks at any gosh-darn moment. The same would go for McCain. His off-script moments would be expected and could be spinned as an asset (as long as he keeps his inner grouch under control). In the past, McCain has demonstrated that he can—to a certain degree—do what must be done in an election. He jettisoned much of his maverickness after 2000 to prep for the 2008 campaign and sucked up to the far right. In 2010, he went tea party on immigration to beat back a primary challenge in Arizona. The other day, he told a reporter that Romney is "Reaganesque." (Yes, he really did.) McCain might be able to keep it all together for two months or so.
- Do not sell past this date. Too old? Possibly. This month McCain will turn 76—and he has had health issues. But he remains feisty. And he would obviously be a one-term choice. If Romney wins, he and his team would be able to tease several high-profile Republicans about becoming McCain's replacement in 2016. Romney could even bounce McCain to the Defense Department after two years and select another veep.
The veep nominee traditionally is the attack dog of the campaign. It would be a curious and compelling sight: McCain chasing after the guy who denied him the ultimate prize. He would have to hold back the bitterness—a tough task—and resist going all I-told-you-so. (Voters don't like politicians who tell them they've erred.) But such a quasi-rematch would be dramatic and engaging. Think Rocky II. And if this confrontation were to overshadow Romney, that might not be detrimental for the campaign. Moreover, McCain can certainly sell the basic Romney policies with verve. He could provide a poignant testimonial: "When it comes to the most important decision a presidential candidate has to make, Gov. Romney definitely did a better job than I did."
Would McCain accept an invitation from Romney? He's not a natural No. 2. But if he can be convinced his presence on the ticket would boost Romney's prospects—and would it be hard to persuade McCain of that?—wouldn't the fellow who says Obama is running the United States into the ground have to salute and report for duty? John McCain: the final mission. Country First, and all that.
It's not likely that Romney will heed this advice. There may be too much bad blood, and this course of action could violate the first rule of veep-picking: Do no harm. It's possible to envision McCain running off the rails—or running off with the show. Yet it merits consideration. And there would be another advantage to selecting McCain: He has already released his taxes.