A week or so before McCain named [Sarah Palin], however, sources close to the campaign say, McCain was intent on naming his fellow-senator Joe Lieberman, an independent, who left the Democratic Party in 2006. David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, who is close to a number of McCain’s top aides, told me that “McCain and Lindsey Graham”—the South Carolina senator, who has been McCain’s closest campaign companion—“really wanted Joe.” But Keene believed that “McCain was scared off” in the final days, after warnings from his advisers that choosing Lieberman would ignite a contentious floor fight at the Convention, as social conservatives revolted against Lieberman for being, among other things, pro-choice.
“They took it away from him,” a longtime friend of McCain—who asked not to be identified, since the campaign has declined to discuss its selection process—said of the advisers. “He was furious. He was pissed. It wasn’t what he wanted.” Another friend disputed this, characterizing McCain’s mood as one of “understanding resignation.”With just days to go before the Convention, the choices were slim. Karl Rove favored McCain’s former rival Mitt Romney, but enough animus lingered from the primaries that McCain rejected the pairing. “I told Romney not to wait by the phone, because ‘he doesn’t like you,’ ” Keene, who favored the choice, said. “With John McCain, all politics is personal.” Other possible choices—such as former Representative Rob Portman, of Ohio, or Governor Tim Pawlenty, of Minnesota—seemed too conventional. They did not transmit McCain’s core message that he was a “maverick.” Finally, McCain’s top aides, including Steve Schmidt and Rick Davis, converged on Palin.
It's a small detail, but I think a telling one, that Lieberman and Palin both made it through the "core message: maverick" screen, but Portman and Pawlenty did not. Lieberman and Palin are, after all, about as distant from one another--ideologically, culturally, characterologically, even geographically--as two contenders for the GOP vice presidential nomination could possibly be: a Jewish, pro-choice, moderately liberal, not particularly colorful, Northeastern, Washington establishment (former) Democrat for whom foreign policy is always Topic A vs. an emphatically Christian, pro-life, very conservative, hyper-colorful, far-West, anti-establishment Republican for whom foreign policy has never been an identifiable concern at all.
It's a good example of the way McCain's (now somewhat dented) personal narrative--that he's a "maverick," a "reformer," a "truth teller"--overwhelms any discussion of his ideology. When Mitt Romney conveniently switched his stances on a variety of issues in preparation for his 2008 presidential run, he was branded a flip-flopper and followed around by a guy in a dolphin suit. When McCain did the same, he just chanted "maverick" a few hundred times and hardly anyone even noticed. So, too, with his vice presidential finalists: The fact that, denied the guy he really wanted, he opted for someone at the opposite end of pretty much every imaginable spectrum, suggests that he has very little idea what he really believes, how he intends to govern, or what role he'd expect his vice president to play in his administration.
It's also worth noting that, from a public policy standpoint, you could probably make the case that Pawlenty had the potential to be the most mavericky choice of all. But because his personal narrative isn't exciting--and, as such, wouldn't have reflected excitingly on McCain's narrative--he didn't make the cut. What the McCain camp is saying when it says he wanted a running mate who reinforced the "core message that he was a maverick," is that he wanted to make a choice--be it left or right, a play to the center or a gift to the base, a close personal friend or someone he'd barely met--that everyone would agree was "outside-the-box" (if you're feeling generous) or "exceptionally risky" (if you're not). As has become abundantly clear over the last several weeks, this love of placing reckless bets, of inventing heroic dramas in which he can star, is central to McCain as a public figure. It's also perhaps the most compelling reason he should not be president.