Will he go for the rice, or use his noodle? That’s the question facing John McCain at the moment, as the Condi-for-VP movement kicks into gear, with the suggestion that Ms Rice is moving her schedule around to accommodate the possibility of stepping down for the big run. The factors for and against such a move are so multifarious as to make the decision essentially a random one.

The first and most obvious entry in the pro column is that such a move would immediately take the gloss off the Democratic argument that – whoever they nominate – history is being made by a woman and a black man running off against each other. And then wham! The GOP throws a black woman into the mix.

“All ma life I been waiting to vote for a woman or a black man, and the tragedy is we got to choose,” Bill Clinton remarked a few weeks ago apropos of his party’s war of attrition, and a Condidacy would make that historic thang the Dems got going suddenly look backward and half-arsed.

A McCain with Rice deal would not only be able to balance age with youth, greatest generation with Boomer/X, it would also be able to suggest that people were essentially voting for a twofer – McCain as a one-term president wandering off to the Boca Raton golf club in ’12, leaving VP Rice as the candidate incumbent. With the possibility of a close race in any case, the extra 2 or 3% who might be persuaded over by such a move is very very tempting.

At any other time such a calculus might be seal the deal, but the big item in the “con” column is even the slightest hint of connection or continuity with the Dubyera, which Obama is going to hammer home. McCain has done a solid job of shifting the debate about Iraq from the moral or general plane to the technical matter of whether the surge is working – helped it must be said by a media which allows the candidates to set the framework of the debate, because that makes it easier to set up timefilling head-to-head debates, rather than questioning the very assumptions itself.

McCain has no other option, but it’s a perpetual shoring of the fragments against his ruin, as bits of the Iraq thang fly off in all directions, and having an architect/patsy of the debacle sitting beside him. The idea of separate administrations allows McCain to pretend there’s no connection between the last and the next – as if shared membership of the Republican party was no more than two people both having Blockbusters cards.

There’s also some murkier reasons why Rice is not a good choice, and that is the wodge of votes McCain could get from remnant prejudiced white Democrats, both male and female, should, as is virtually certain, Obama get up. Some of these will be from the South, but not a few would be from the rustbelt states, with high crime rates, a disproportionate amount of it based in the black community, and a lot of deep-seated division between communities based around Polish, German, etc pre-WW2 immigrants and the only people they encountered lower on the totem pole – the “negroes”. Should McCain make a move that puts a BLACK WOMAN one exploding prostate away from the Oval Office, well, why shift? Whoever you vote for, a schwartzer’s going to get in.

With the Petraeus hearings unfolding as I write, it’s the Dubya connection that will probably swing the decision against Rice. They’re giving McCain what he desperately needs, which is some airtime that isn’t a Fox news charity leghump – last American hero at the Alabama sasquatch festival, running just after three straight hours of Barackary, and just before the rollerblading squirrel. But mannnnnn he has to be a better GOP actor than cold, dead Chuck Heston to be selling the “never surrender” message as Petraeus once again asks Congress to cease troop withdrawals of the surge that’s working.

A fortnight earlier, before Al-Sadr-loyal militias got out on the street, a simple line on the surge could still be sold. But even the most braindead loyalist had to notice that the violence was between two Shia factions, forcing the US to choose one set of gangsters, and that the government couldn’t impose its will. What is remarkable about the hearings is that much of the harshest criticism is coming from the Republicans – both long-standing opponents of the war such as Chuck Hagel who makes the simple point that “US policy is now essentially captive to the domestic politics of Iraq” and more recent ones desperate to avoid a GOP Senate wipeout in November – such as Richard Lugar, who points out that the administration has no definable political strategy.

Iraq is a lot of things for the US – a military problem, a financial problem. But it is above all a cultural problem, for the conflict is one that serves for many Americans as essentially a keystone for national self-belief. That’s particularly so as the economy is crumbling beneath the feet of many in the middle class. Two hundred thousand repossessions were filed in February, with a forecast of a possible two and a half million for the year, or about one in 45 houses, the tip of the iceberg of those living in the twilight world of refinancing etc etc.

The recession – in today’s economy anything less than 2% growth is de facto a recession – coupled with the lack of political leadership, and the sense that the world has become multipolar and eastern oriented while no-one noticed – has left the role of international hero the only thing left to lean on. In such a situation, the continued stalemate in Iraq is almost worse than a clear defeat. What leaches out day-by-day is any meaning the conflict might have as it turns into an incomprehensible, interminable mistake, successively reframed with increasingly flimsy surrounds.

This may be one reason why neither Obama nor Clinton have really opened up on the futility of the war. People can’t beat too much reality and they want to avoid shocking the public back to McCain’s comforting fantasy. Or they’re keeping their powder dry for the campaign proper. Either way McCain, a pilot from way back, knows he has heavier flak to yet fly through. One suspects he thinks of Condi not as co-pilot but as a passenger he can’t afford. God knows who he’ll choose, but even now he may be ringing Mike Huckabee – to get Chuck Norris’s number.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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