Heilemann: McCain’s Pro-Choice V.P. Bluff

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The alarm bells started ringing last week in the rightmost corners of Republican Nation, when John McCain suggested to The Weekly Standard that the door was still open to the possibility of his naming Tom Ridge as his running mate. Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania and ex-head of the Department of Homeland Security, is a supporter of abortion rights — i.e., an enabler of mass-scale fetus slaughter in the eyes of the GOP’s ardent pro-life faction. McCain’s appearance Saturday night at Saddleback Church, where he declared himself a fervent pro-lifer and one who will govern as such, reduced the abortion-apostasy danger level from orange to yellow. But the threatometer began blinking red this morning, when word hit the Web that McCain officials have been calling up key Republican officials and donors, sounding them out about the scale of the fallout from a pro-choice V.P. pick.

The wailing and gnashing from the wing-nut caucus was immediate and hysterical. “If the McCain camp does that, they will have effectively destroyed the Republican Party and put the conservative movement in the bleachers,” ranted Rush Limbaugh, singling out Ridge and Joe Lieberman as running mates who would “ensure [McCain’s] defeat.” Within hours, presto-chango, a “GOP strategist” was telling Time’s Mark Halperin that Ridge had been removed from consideration. Soon enough, two Republican sources of mine confirmed the Halperin scooplet, and said further that the McCainiacs had “got the message” that a pro-choice number two would lead to a full-blown conflagration at the Republican convention two weeks from now in St. Paul. (Matt Drudge may no longer rule our world, but El Rushbo still gets results!)

The sensible question that arises from all this is just how serious the McCain brain trust has ever really been about ruffling the feathers of the GOP’s Evangelical wing. The argument for a pro-choice running mate isn’t difficult to comprehend, to be sure. That McCain is running neck and neck with Barack Obama owes much to the image he built for himself long ago as a maverick, a guy willing to disregard his party’s dogma when it ran against his conception of what was in the country’s best interests (on immigration, campaign-finance reform, etc.). But that image of McCain is severely out of date; in the weeks ahead, the Republican nominee faces what’s sure to be a vigorous and concerted effort by Obama and the Democratic Party to paint him as a clone of George W. Bush.

What better way, then, to blunt that thrust, to show that McCain remains an independent-minded iconoclast, than to go pro-choice with his V.P. selection? Sure it would incite a blowup at the GOP convention. But that would only illustrate the point that, well, McCain is still McCain — while at the same time he could pacify the pro-life crowd by pointing out that a vice-president has no role in shaping the nation’s abortion laws, and that McCain has pledged up and down to appoint “strict constructionist” judges (jurists inclined, that is, to overturn Roe v. Wade) to the Supreme Court regardless of who happens to be occupying the Old Executive Office Building.

The problem with this argument lies in a raft of recent polling data that shows McCain smartly gaining support among the Republican base, and with Evangelicals in particular. (He’s gone from 61 to 68 percent since June, according to Pew.) Whereas a few months ago, when the widespread assumption was that Obama would have perhaps a double-digit lead going into the Democratic convention, the race today is a dead heat, thus lessening the incentive for McCain to shake things up with any sort of outside-the-box V.P. choice. And with animus toward the hopemonger growing among conservatives, there’s even a chance that McCain, if he refrains from offending the base, might be able to generate a healthy (albeit nowhere near Bush-level) turnout on the rabid, rock-ribbed right — an unthinkable scenario even a few months ago*.

So what the hell’s the deal with all these ostensible pro-choice trial balloons? Well, what if McCain were planning to name a running mate who, despite being pro-life, the religious right has some qualms about? What if that putative V.P., indeed, had lately been criticized by another erstwhile GOP presidential runner — a Baptist minister, no less — for his shifting stances on social issues, stirring up a rearguard action among some Christianists to block him? Isn’t it possible that McCain and his people are engaged in a bit of elaborate gamesmanship designed to make Evangelicals more grateful than they otherwise might be for the selection of that guy?

The heart doth sink and the mind doth reel, but I do believe what we are looking at here is the start of the Romney Rollout.

*Addendum: For another reason why McCain is highly unlikely to pick a pro-choice VP, see former Bush adviser Pete Wehner's post today on the Commentary website about Obama's alleged pro-abortion extremism — which Wehner calls "the policy equivalent of his long-time association with Reverend Wright." Putting aside the hyperbole of the argument, if this is something that the right is going to target, it would make no sense at all for McCain to muddy the waters on an issue that could drive Evangelical turn-out by selecting a running mate who's in favor of abortion rights.