Steven Stark is a sharp political analyst, and he correctly identifies McCain’s priorities for the general election. These are:
* He has to win more than his share of the rust-belt swing states — such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and even Michigan — that are likely to decide the election.
* He has to do this by appealing to a large number of working-class, often Catholic swing voters in industrial states — the so-called Reagan Democrats.
* He has to convince enough voters that Obama is too inexperienced to handle the foreign-policy and terrorism threats facing the nation.
* And he has to hold the Republican Party together by discouraging a far-right third-party candidacy while maintaining his appeal to Independents.
As much disaffection with McCain as there is, I think this last concern is the least of McCain’s worries. Rust Belt electoral success is a must for the GOP nominee, and right now McCain is surprisingly well-positioned to exploit the ongoing implosion of the Democratic contenders. He has been drawing strong support from Catholic voters throughout the primaries. So McCain already has several of his objectives in sight and should be able to reach them, barring major blunders or genuine scandal. A major third party challenge from the right becomes a real threat only to the extent that the Democrats appear to be flailing and collapsing, which creates an opening for more disaffected conservatives to cast protest votes that they assume will not affect the outcome. There is a base of support nationwide for a third party candidate that could possibly lead to a 7-10% result, but in a close race most of these voters will probably end up siding with the major party candidate they find least distasteful. The logic that compels restrictionists to continue holding their noses and enabling pro-amnesty national Republicans will apply once again.
What makes no sense, then, is the argument that choosing Tom Ridge as VP assists McCain in reaching most of his objectives. If choosing Mike Huckabee is “doubling your trouble” with movement conservatives, as Rove put it, choosing Ridge is like jumping through a plate glass window into a lake of burning fire. Selecting Ridge will provoke the third party challenge from the right that McCain can’t afford over abortion (remember that McCain has been desperately clinging to his generally pro-life voting record as one of the proofs of his own conservatism), or at the very least it would repel many of the Catholics drawn to the GOP because of life issues, thus actively undermining the ticket in one of the areas where McCain currently has some strength. While Ridge would probably help the ticket in Pennsylvania because of the home state connection, it’s not clear what he offers that would shore up McCain’s position in neighbouring states. In general, choosing anyone who has been a Bush Cabinet member reinforces the image of running for a third Bush term, and choosing Ridge, whose tenure at DHS was not all together popular, compounds this mistake.
If Americans remember Tom Ridge at all, they remember him as the DHS Secretary who was continually harrassing them with announcements about the changes in the alert level (the reasons for which he could not, of course, explain in any detail in public) and holding preposterous press conferences about buying sufficient stores of duct tape. (And, yes, I understand that this was part of a larger program of encouraging voluntary preparedness for disasters, but it was presented very badly, which hardly recommends Ridge for a leading role in selling the ticket to the public.) As someone responsible for border security as head of DHS at the time when border security was even weaker than today, Ridge would compound McCain’s problems with restrictionists who already have difficulty trusting McCain on anything related to the border. He was the face of the hyper-paranoid stage of the “war on terror,” back when people were supposed to believe that Bin Laden was coming to get them in Dubuque and Cedar Rapids. What better target could you give Obama than that? I suppose if you wanted the first in the line of succession to be a figure of fun and relentless mockery, you might choose Tom Ridge.
The problems don’t stop there. When Ridge’s name was floated as a VP nominee in 2000, John Miller wrote a profile of the then-governor that would not reassure wary conservatives. Miller wrote back then:
Ridge is not a conservative who happens to be pro-choice; he’s a liberal Republican who happens to have done a handful of conservative things as governor. Putting him on the ticket is a fateful bargain. Perhaps he can overcome pro-life outrage and help Bush get elected this year. But at what cost down the road?
On the whole, everything that conservatives found unacceptable about Mike Huckabee on fiscal, domestic and foreign policy Tom Ridge has in spades and he’s not a social conservative on top of it. Ridge’s so-called “dove” instincts may or may not still apply today, in which he case he would be even more unacceptable to the majority of the GOP that is reflexively hawkish. Given the concerns about McCain’s advanced age, Ridge would be judged not just as a ticket-balancing or election-winning choice but as possibly being the next President, and it is fairly inconceivable that most Republicans would ever willingly choose Tom Ridge for President, so they will not abide him as VP.