When is audacity the better part of caution? I think Bill Kristol knows. In his New York Times column today, he argues that McCain needs to demonstrate the kind of caution that requires audacity--not only in his veep choice, but also in the full on operation of his campaign. Kristol’s reflection comes from his talks with McCain staffers and, if his representations are--in fact--representative, it sounds like they know what they’re about. It’s well and good to watch your opponent set himself afire, but you’d better not assume he’s an ordinary bird when he might be a phoenix. The Arizonan McCain, who somewhat miraculously pulled his own feathers out of the fire, must know this. But it’s not just the general rule of thumb that one should never underestimate one’s opponent that should drive McCain’s campaign. As Kristol argues, at at time when there’s a 30% approval rating for a GOP President and when 80% of the voters think the country’s on the wrong track, overconfidence is not going to serve McCain well. And yet, perhaps the only thing more deadly in this situation is excessive caution. So what to do?
VP choices, in and of themselves, rarely mean anything substantive or representative for a campaign. That is unless, of course, it is a bad choice and it causes voters to question the judgment of the man at the top of the ticket. (As we’ve seen in the last few weeks; one has to be careful about the people with whom one associates in politics!) But even putting the Reverand Wright aside, this has been a campaign season in which almost every rule of thumb has been tossed out the window.
Kristol’s article has me thinking that in this year and for this election, perhaps especially in the case of McCain, it’s going to be very important to see who he selects to be his VP running mate. There are a whole host of reasons for this that are obvious: his age, his need to shore up the conservative base, his need to appeal to Reagan Dems, his need to bring energy to the campaign, etc. But more than all of this, it is going to be McCain’s next (and, if it’s not done well, maybe last) really big opportunity to set the tone for his campaign and define himself to voters. He will have a chance to make a case to voters about what kind of a Republican he is and what kind of energy he will bring to the campaign. Is he a clone of Bush, representing ties to an unpopular and troubled administration? Is he an establishment Republican, with an assortment of old stalwarts (or their clones) in his entourage? Is he an associate of overly zealous religious conservatives who (fairly or not) will invariably invite comparisons suggesting equivalence between themselves and Wright . . . or is there really something to his "maverick" reputation?
What does it mean for McCain to be a "maverick," anyway? Are his conservative critics right that he’s only a maverick when he’s going up against conservatives--or could they be missing something? Could it be that McCain sees himself more as a patriot trying to forge new and workable directions--a guy open to new ideas and to making things work in the best sense of the American tradition? We don’t have to agree with McCain’s self-perception to concede that it may, in fact, be his understanding of himself. Perhaps this caused him to butt heads with conservatives in the past . . . and perhaps (dare he say it?) in some of those instances, he turned out to be wrong. But could this be a different time? Could this be a time when a maverick is exactly what we need? Could this be a time when the "maverick" in him, instead of sizing up the next conservative opponent is now drawn to a fresh, young, reforming but conservative maverick in his own right? Could the caution that is audacity move McCain to be a real maverick and choose Bobby Jindal for his running mate? Could this pre-boomer and post-boomer ticket work the generational angle in such a way as to explain away much of the poor perception of the GOP that is the immediate (though I still say, not the lasting) legacy of last 8 years? I don’t know but I think . . . maybe. Anyway, it is the audacity of my hope.