The John McCain Imperative

Who John McCain picks as his vice presidential nominee is more important to the future of the Republican Party, and indeed the country, than it might otherwise initially seem.

Speculation of McCain's possible choices has grown with the news that prominent Republicans Mitt Romney, Charlie Crist and Bobby Jindal will join McCain over the Memorial Day holiday at his Sedona cabin, but if McCain and the Republicans give in to conventional tactics and select a conservative running mate to complement the maverick John McCain, they will most likely have opted for a losing strategy for a party that is now in decline.

The Republican Party is in a downward spiral since losing the majority in Congress in 2006, most recently evidenced by the loss of three congressional special elections in the last few months. Furthermore, the most recent polls all show Democrats have a double digit lead in congressional voter preference.

There is a way for the Republican Party to transform the race and ultimately have a strong chance to win the election. And that is by nominating a non-Republican for the second spot to create a fusion ticket that would be based on a centrist, non-partisan approach. Polls show that 60 to 70% of the American electorate is attracted to the idea of the parties offering a non-partisan, results-oriented approach to the nation's seemingly intractable problems. Fortunately for Democrats, the current makeup of the Republican Party suggests that it is highly unlikely that they will follow this potentially game-changing approach.

A quick look at some recent polls shows how uphill a climb Senator McCain faces if he is to emerge victorious.

The Democrats are currently divided and fighting among themselves. Twenty to 25% of Obama and Clinton supporters now say they will defect to McCain if their candidate loses the nomination. But those numbers are likely to change when the Democratic Party, as they inevitably will, consolidates around a nominee. This means that the polls that currently show McCain running very competitively with both Obama and Clinton will almost certainly change for the worse once the Democrats conclude their nominating process.

In a recent Fox News poll, McCain led Obama by three points. However, when voters were asked to choose between two presidential tickets, Obama-Clinton and McCain-Romney, the Obama-Clinton ticket won by six points, at a time when the Democrats appear hopelessly divided. The McCain-Romney ticket is a generic Republican ticket backed by such Republican stalwarts as Karl Rove, and these poll numbers are indicative of how that ticket is likely to fare in the fall general election.

Other polling, which focuses on the parties, demonstrates how big of an advantage the Democratic nominee is likely to have.

In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken at the end of April, voters said they prefer that a Democrat be elected president instead of a Republican this fall by 18 points. A Washington Post/ABC News Poll taken last month shows that by an almost 20-point margin, the electorate would choose a generic Democratic presidential candidate over an unnamed Republican presidential candidate to resolve the situation in Iraq and handle the economy.

Thus, the odds are stacked greatly against a Republican winning the 2008 presidential race. So what can McCain do to win the race?

One compelling option for McCain is to change the nature of the Republican Party and indeed the electoral process in the United States in a way that has not been done in the modern era. Slated to join McCain this weekend is an independent Democrat, Joe Lieberman. The former Democratic vice presidential nominee is a strong supporter of a hawkish foreign policy, a loyal ally to McCain, and as McCain's running mate would allow for a number of arguments that will uniquely empower McCain and the Republicans in the fall elections.

By picking Joe Lieberman, John McCain can do three things he can not otherwise do. First, he runs as a centrist and a maverick, not a mainstream Republican, effectively and finally distancing himself from George Bush and turning the race into a contest between a bipartisan coalition and a more narrow Democratic ticket. This will avoid allowing the race to inevitably become a contest between a partisan Republican and a partisan Democrat -- a contrast that works inexorably to the Republican disadvantage.

Second, choosing Lieberman as his vice president allows McCain to develop a new, centrist ideology, borrowing ideas and principles from both parties. Working in a bipartisan fashion, and advocating and responding to the electorate's desire for change by indicating he will choose a bipartisan cabinet, McCain can take on the serious issues facing our country, such as entitlements, healthcare, our struggling economy and both the war on terror and the war in Iraq.

The Obama candidacy has compellingly proven that voters are attracted to this type of centrist, bipartisan approach, and there is ample survey research that supports this conclusion.

Finally, if McCain selects Lieberman as his vice presidential running mate, he creates a critically important opportunity for America -- the possibility for bipartisan coalitions in the House and the Senate to be forged in a way that will uniquely reassure the American people about what can be achieved in Washington in the future.

To be sure, this idea goes against conventional wisdom. When Karl Rove and other Republican leaders have been asked who McCain should choose as his running mate, they run through a list of prospective choices and conclude that someone like Mitt Romney would make sense, or perhaps Charlie Crist can deliver Florida, or Bobby Jindal can balance McCain's age. I think this conventional approach is wrong for the Republican Party and wrong for the nation.

Let me be clear. This is about more than just choosing a vice presidential running mate. This is about fundamentally altering the nature of the political party system in America, which will redound not only to the short-term benefit of McCain, but also to the long-term benefit of the country.

Thus, selecting Joe Lieberman is not only a smart electoral strategy for John McCain, but a strategy that could potentially transform American politics.

Carly Cooperman contributed to this article.