US elections 2008: If John McCain wins the nomination, he shouldn't put a foreign policy novice like Mike Huckabee a heartbeat away from the presidency
With John McCain's narrow wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina making him a shaky Republican frontrunner, people have engaged in some absurdly early speculation as to whom he might choose as a running mate. One early favourite is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the darling of the evangelicals. But if McCain is the man he and his supporters say he is, he won't do that to the country.
McCain's official campaign biography says: "As the son and grandson of distinguished Navy admirals, John McCain deeply values duty, honour and service of country." That's the theme of his campaign. His determination to prove his own integrity inspired his decade-long fight to impose strict new regulations on campaign finance. Told that his support for the Iraq war might doom his presidential candidacy, McCain repeatedly says: "I'd rather lose an election than a war." Newspaper endorsements, like this one from the State in South Carolina, echo those sentiments:
John McCain has shown more clearly than anyone on the American political scene today that he loves his country, and would never mislead or dishonour it. He is almost unique in his determination to do what is right, whatever the cost.
McCain will also be 72 years old if he is inaugurated a year from now, however, making him the oldest man ever to enter the White House. He likes to talk about his 95-year-old mother to illustrate his good genes, but the presidency is a very stressful job, there are indeed terrorists out to get the American president, five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison can't be good for your health and he has had a bout with skin cancer. Furthermore, his mother's age notwithstanding, his father died at 70 and his grandfather at 61. So he has to recognise the possibility at least that he might not serve out his term. At a time of international turmoil, it is essential that a president, especially one so committed to duty, honour and country, leave the country in capable hands in that eventuality.
Could McCain honourably serve his country by putting Mike Huckabee a heartbeat from the presidency? There's some political plausibility. Huckabee is younger. He would reassure religious conservatives who might be sceptical of McCain. He's a charming and effective campaigner.
But from a policy perspective, he's a conservative candidate who is also a big-spending nanny statist. He bills himself as a "Christian leader" and says that his rise in the polls can only be attributed to God's will. As I wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Huckabee doesn't just want a government that will stamp out sin. He wants a government that will worry about your body as much as your soul." He says that "it is government's responsibility to try to create a culture of health", including pressuring employers to "encourage" healthier lifestyles among their employees. He wants a federal ban on smoking in the workplace and other public places. He's even threatened to ban cigarettes altogether. He wants federal regulation of local schools and restaurant menus.
But more importantly for McCain, Huckabee has no experience and apparently no knowledge of foreign policy. When the journal Foreign Affairs inexplicably asked him for an essay, he wrote about the "Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality" - and then, when his remarks were reported, he ran away from them. He demonstrated his minimal knowledge about Pakistan in his remarks on Benazir Bhutto's assassination. He spouts the usual nonsense about energy independence and veiled protectionist rhetoric like "We can't have free trade if it's not fair trade." When asked about the blockbuster National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear capability, he said that "nobody's going to be able, if they've been campaigning as hard as we have been, to keep up with every single thing, from what happened to Britney last night to who won Dancing with the Stars."
To be sure, neither Bill Clinton nor George Bush had much foreign policy experience as governor either (and we've seen how well that worked out), but Huckabee seems to have far less background even than they did.
It's hard to imagine that a man who values national security and his own duty as much as McCain does would put a self-styled "Christian leader" who doesn't read foreign policy stories in the newspaper a heartbeat from the Oval Office.
For more blogs on the US elections, click here.