If the first rule of picking a running mate is to risk as little harm to the ticket as possible, then Mike Huckabee shouldn't be John McCain's first choice for veep--or his second, third, or fourth, for that matter. With the exception of a certain junior senator from Illinois, Huckabee is easily the most interesting political talent to emerge during this campaign season. But he's also the most unpolished and unpredictable, with a longer list of enemies than any politician so new to the national stage ought to have and a regiment of Arkansas skeletons clattering around in his closet. Few of McCain's potential veeps are so vulnerable to caricature, few would draw so much fire from within the GOP, and few are as easy to imagine lurching cheerfully off-message in the heat of the campaign, alienating a key constituency with an ill-timed gaffe or a badly played attempt at humor.
But, in passing over Huckabee--as he almost certainly will--McCain will be passing over a politician who embodies more than a few of the traits that the Arizona senator ought to be looking for in a running mate, both in terms of reinforcing his strengths and balancing out his weaknesses. Like McCain, Huckabee has self-consciously branded himself a "different kind of Republican," which happens to be the only sort of Republican with a chance to win the White House this November. But he's a different kind of "different kind of Republican" than the Arizona senator--a competent governor rather than a maverick legislator, with a record that's defined by kitchen-table issues like health care, education, and transportation rather than the more boutique causes (campaign-finance reform, say, or the crusade against earmarks) that McCain tends to champion.
Both men share a reformist temper, but Huckabee's is grounded more in religious conviction than in the ideals of honor and national service that animate McCain. Both speak the language of populism, but their appeals are pitched to different audiences: in McCain's case, to good-government enthusiasts and foes of "special interests"; in Huckabee's, to a rising generation of religious conservatives interested in expanding their movement's portfolio to encompass issues like poverty and the environment as well as abortion and same-sex marriage. Both share an easy rapport with the press, but their personal styles--the smooth-talking charmer versus the gruff straight-shooter--are complementary rather than redundant. And both share a Scots-Irish patrimony, which promises to be useful in a race that may be decided in the Scots-Irish belt that runs from Arkansas and Missouri up to Pennsylvania and Ohio, while representing very different types within that demographic--the charismatic preacher and the military man. (Given that the relationship between a president and vice president is often defined by mutual distrust, Huckabee's obvious man-crush on McCain would also represent a plus.)
This rosy assessment, of course, leaves out a few crucial points. Huckabee talks a vastly better recession-year game on issues like health care and the economy than McCain, but, when it comes to actual policy, his expertise seems to end at the Arkansas border. His achievements as governor were real enough, but he ran for president on the too-good-to-be-true Fair-Tax boondoggle and not much else. He represents a constituency--religious conservatives--that McCain badly needs to turn out in November, but he's picked fights with just about every other interest group on the contemporary right, from libertarians to supply-siders to Rush Limbaugh-listeners, most of whom already have more than a few reasons to be suspicious of McCain.
Moreover, while Huckabee speaks the language of new-model evangelicalism, cut loose from the bigotries of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, he has enough hard-shell Baptist baggage of his own to give the willies to everyone from Catholic voters (who conspicuously failed to embrace him in states like Michigan and New Hampshire) to business-class Republicans to secular journalists. The press corps smiled on Huckabee during the primary season for many of the same reasons it liked McCain way back in 2000--because he was a plucky and accessible underdog taking on the GOP establishment on a shoestring budget. But it's hard to imagine that he'd earn the same sort of favorable coverage once reporters contemplated the prospect of having a crypto-Creationist a heartbeat away from the presidency.
A McCain-Huckabee ticket, then, would make sense only if McCain were running a very different sort of campaign--if he were in the mood to blow up the GOP in the name of "creative destruction," as his neo-conservative admirers famously urged him to do back in 2000, rather than betting that he can hold the fracturing, feuding Reagan coalition together long enough to achieve one last victory. Picking Huckabee would represent a gamble that the future of the party lies with some odd amalgam of right-wing heterodoxies; that many of the movement-conservative institutions that served the GOP during its rise to power need to be attacked, rather than reformed; and that the best way to push the Republican Party beyond its current impasse would be to run a ramshackle, ideologically confusing, shoot-from-the-hip campaign and hope it turned out OK in the end.
This is not, to put it mildly, the way that McCain seems intent on conducting his general-election campaign--which is probably a wise decision, since political "creative destruction" is often more destructive than creative. But it would sure be fun to watch.
Ross Douthat is a senior editor at The Atlantic.
By Ross Douthat