Kerry-McCain Ticket Makes So Much Sense

Originally posted: March 19, 2004

The idea that John Kerry should take Republican John McCain as his running mate actually originated with an Indianapolis Star reader named Charlie Bunes.

He first hatched the idea in response to a column I wrote suggesting that McCain head an investigation of corruption among war contractors.

Charlie only half-liked that suggestion. He told me by e-mail that I was thinking too small. McCain, he said, could really shake things up if he were Kerry’s vice president.

Charlie’s idea quickly moved into the cyber-sphere. Two days later, McCain was asked on ABC News: If Kerry made the offer, would you take it?

McCain seemed perplexed, as if the thought had never occurred to him. Perhaps it had not. But he took the question seriously.

On MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Chris Matthews bounced the idea off Democratic Sen. Joe Biden. Biden liked the Kerry-McCain ticket, he said, and would urge McCain to accept if Kerry offered.

Kerry the Democrat and McCain the Republican have things in common that bind them across party lines. First, both come from families where military service and duty to country were core values.

Both were Navy men. Both fought in Vietnam: Kerry, heroically in a war he did not believe in, and McCain as a prisoner of war singled out for special tortures because his captors knew that his father was a famous admiral.

Remember, in 2000 McCain wanted to be president badly enough to challenge George W. Bush for the job. He hammered Bush in New Hampshire, but in the next primary, South Carolina, the gloves came off. An unsubstantiated rumor was circulated that damaged McCain’s campaign.

McCain was beaten in 2000, but perhaps he hasn’t lost the yen to get to the White House some day, some way. Former Arizona congressman Morris Udall used to say, “Once you get the presidential virus in your system, the only way to get it out is with embalming fluid.”

So when McCain was popped the question, he answered honestly. Sure, he said. If Kerry offered he would consider it. Kerry is a friend.

Imagine the incoming fire McCain took from fellow Republicans. Imagine his press secretary, “Good God, senator! You never answer a hypothetical question! Do you want Karl Rove rampant on your back?”

Soon McCain’s office put out a statement. The senator misspoke. He is not interested. Besides, Kerry would never take a pro-life Republican.

But Charlie’s idea is still ratcheting around the cable talk shows and flooding the political blogs. That is because it is so interesting and it makes so much sense.

Kerry-McCain is Karl Rove’s worst nightmare. In 2000, for as long as he was in the race, McCain demonstrated a powerful appeal for independents.

In the days since it has become clear that Kerry will be the Democratic nominee, the tenor of the race has changed. Indications are this will be a negative, slashing campaign. The early Bush campaign commercials make it clear that Rove wants to take out Kerry quickly.

Outside Iowa, New Hampshire and a few other states, most Americans have no firm footing about who Kerry is. Rove’s purpose is to define Kerry before he can define himself. So they are attacking his strengths, his military and foreign policy record, his national security credentials. Make his strength a weakness.

In campaigns like this, each party secures its own base and Independents become the swing voters. McCain reshuffles Rove’s deck.

Others that might like a Kerry-McCain pairing are the millions of young voters entering the system for the first time, along with those newcomers to politics that Howard Dean found on the Internet.

These groups would appreciate a Kerry-McCain ticket, two guys ready to put partisanship aside to get something done.

What about the problem of McCain’s pro-life position? Well, when Bush’s father ran against Ronald Reagan in the 1980 primaries, he was a pro-choice Republican. The day Reagan tapped him for veep, Bush Sr. began to change his mind. Soon he was supporting a constitutional amendment to ban abortions.

In 2000, McCain was pressed hard on abortion. He was asked, what if your daughter was pregnant and wanted an abortion? His answer: I guess that would be up to her. That sounds a bit like pro-choice, doesn’t it?

So, remember, if the Kerry-McCain ticket comes to pass, full credit to Charlie Bunes of Indianapolis.

Bode, a former CNN political analyst, is Pulliam Professor of Journalism at DePauw University

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