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Jun 27 2008

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Obama’s First “Presidential” Decision

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We are the ones we’ve been waiting for;
we are the change that we seek.

Barack Obama

If campaigns were based solely on rhetoric and style, one could wonder what took Barack Obama so long to secure the Democratic nomination.

Who, but Obama, could make a contrived self-help quote into a clarion call for political reform? In creating America’s first self-actualized presidential campaign, Obama has crafted a new political dialectic that is at turns, lofty, compelling, optimistic, inspirational and inclusive, as it is frustratingly opaque to critics.

But is it sustainable?

As he moves from the primary campaign to the general election, Obama’s first presidential decision is less than six weeks away; his choice of a running mate. Given the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy, his limited national experience and modest resume, rarely has so much been riding on one decision.

Past Party nominees have used their vice presidential selections to accomplish one of several goals; to unite the party, to extend their demographic appeal and/or to balance a geographic, personal or policy weakness.

But given Obama’s unique background, he must look to these objectives but also do more. Above all, he needs to pick a candidate who will broadly reassure voters while at the same time be worthy of his change paradigm. How well Obama reconciles that divide will be the measure of success for his vice presidential choice.

The Talent Pool

If history was the only guide, Obama will pick a senator. During the last 56 years the Democrats have been remarkably consistent in their selection pool for running mates.

With the exception of those instances where the same Democratic ticket was running for re-election (’80 and ‘96), Democrats have overwhelmingly favored senators as the vice presidential pick. That includes: Truman ’48, Stevenson in ’52 & ’56, Kennedy in ’60, Johnson in ’64, Humphrey in ’68, McGovern’s first try in ’72 (though he ultimately went with a party activist, Sargent Shriver), Carter in ’76, Dukakis in ’88, Gore in ’00 and Kerry in ‘04.  Only in 1984 did Walter Mondale break the mold in his selection of House member Geraldine Ferraro as a running mate.

There is no shortage of potential vice presidential aspirants or compelling electoral strategies to accompany their selection. To sort it out, consider a series of quantitative screens to rank the various potential candidates:

  • Gender & Ethnic Appeal
    • Women/Working Class Whites
  • Experience
    • Governor/Legislative/Executive Branch
  • Internal Party Political Considerations
    • Iraq War/Clinton Supporter
  • Geographic Considerations
    • Swing state/Core region
  • Philosophy and Generation Appeal

Assessments – “The Also Rans”:

These filters lay bare the weaknesses of many of the candidates currently garnering favorable public play.

Consider former Senator Sam Nunn. Nunn brings a distinguished defense background, but is separated almost culturally from Obama on other significant policy issues. He lacks any kind of executive experience. While he may help in Georgia, “Southern Strategies” only work for Democrats when there is a southerner at the top of the ticket. How many southern states did John Edwards help carry in ’04? Most importantly, at age 70, Nunn represents a generational throwback for Obama, where the selection would effectively concede McCain’s argument about experience and neuter Obama’s nuanced argument about age. If Nunn is the answer, you have to ask what the question was.

The same is broadly true about Virginia’s two rising stars.

Governor Tim Kaine has a long history of local and state government service. A Catholic Minnesotan by birth, Kaine has 17 years in various levels of city/state government. He was an early backer of Obama when conventional wisdom was with the Clintons. However, Kaine has only been governor for little more than two years. While he serves Virginia capably, his experience is narrow and insular, lacking broader national flavor or a national security portfolio (unless one considers Kaine’s service in the Peace Corps as checking the box…never under estimate Democrats’ ability to surprise) In this election cycle, Kaine simply lacks gravitas.

Senator Jim Webb offers a compelling narrative of a Republican turned Democrat who is a decorated combat veteran and former Navy Secretary. Webb has been an outspoken critic of the Iraq War and emerging populist voice in the Senate. But Webb barely won his election in 2006, and his support is not in the rural areas of Virginia that could help carry the state. He has only been on the national stage for little more than a year and is still an unknown quantity. Webb’s past writings, both fiction and opinion, could serve as a fountain of distraction for Obama in the fall.

Senator Chuck Hagel is another monthly flavor that does not stand up to serious scrutiny. Hagel’s appeal is rooted in that of Webb’s. He’s a Republican who is a vocal critic of the War in Iraq and a combat veteran. He has more experience than Webb in his two terms in the Senate, and foreign policy experience through his service on the Foreign Relations Committee. Moreover, Hagel had a successful career in the private sector before becoming a Senator.

But Beyond Iraq, Hagel has been a reliable Republican vote. He is notably pro-life, to the point of offering an amendment to make fetuses eligible for SCHIP health insurance, a position that should give NARAL a bad case of the vapors. He supported tax breaks for energy companies and favored drilling in ANWAR, something even presumptive Republican nominee McCain won’t support.

The fundamental principle behind any selection of a running mate should be whether that person is fully prepared to take over, shares the nominee’s values, principles, philosophy and priorities. Ultimately, a Hagel vice presidency denies Obama the ability to brand the Party with a groomed successor that would follow his policy leads after he had left office.

It leaves a bipartisan ticket as an elusive dream.

Ethnics Deserving a Second Look:

During the primary, Obama had difficulty reaching out to white working class and rural voters. In Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Obama would have a solution. On the surface, a Rendell pick has much to recommend it. A two-term governor and former Party chair. Pennsylvania mirrors the country with its liberal border areas, east and west, and conservative heartland, and Rendell has won convincingly there.  As a strong Clinton supporter who delivered, a Rendell pick would be nod toward party unity.

But despite his strengths, Rendell is not the right optical fit for Obama. He doesn’t have foreign policy or military policy experience. At 64 he begins to challenge the Obama generational appeal. Rendell would lock Pennsylvania for the Democrats, but all polls currently show Obama with a lead outside the margin of error. Pennsylvania has been a reliable Democratic state since ’88. For genuine value added, Rendell is less than a full serving.

Risk Taking:

Two risky but worthy candidates deserve a look.

Based on the quantitative measures alone, the best candidate for Barack Obama would be Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico. Richardson’s resume is a substantive and diverse portfolio of high profile positions that reflects significant executive experience and national security credentials.

For fifteen years, Richardson represented the third district of New Mexico in the House of Representatives. During his tenure, he sponsored and passed a bill to retain and improve heath care for rural New Mexicans. He supported environmental initiatives that protected the Rio Grande River and San Juan Basin, and worked to bring jobs to the state.

But his focus on foreign policy is what marked Richardson early on. As a congressman, Richardson also served as a special envoy on sensitive international missions. He successfully won the release of hostages and prisoners in North Korea, Iraq and Cuba.

In 1997, Richardson was plucked by President Clinton to become UN Ambassador and was nominated and confirmed in 1998 to become Secretary of the Department of Energy, during the very public security lapses at nuclear weapons labs. After leaving Washington in 2001, Richardson ran for and won the governorship of New Mexico by a 17-point margin in 2002 on a night that was otherwise a disappointment for Democrats nationwide. The election made Richardson the nation’s only Hispanic governor. He won reelection with 68% of the vote in 2006.

Richardson’s potential benefits to Obama are tangible. He has solid legislative experience. He has legitimate national security credentials with practical, hands on foreign policy experience. While Obama advocates active diplomacy, Richardson has actually done it, negotiating with tyrants around the world. It is no mean feat that Richardson was nominated four times for the Nobel Peace Prize. And to round out the impressive resume, Richardson has real executive management skills as both a cabinet head and state chief executive.

Richardson is also a good fit ideologically with Obama. He strongly favors abortion rights and additional federal funding for health care, and opposes school prayer and school vouchers. As governor, his focus has been on access to quality heath care, school reform and efforts to make New Mexico a leader in renewable energy and clean energy technologies. Richardson accomplished this while cut taxes and balanced the budget.

Beyond his qualifications, Richardson’s brings potentially realigning electoral advantage through his appeal to Hispanics. Beyond his native New Mexico (42% Hispanic), which Bush won narrowly, Richardson could be a factor in Nevada (19% Hispanic), Colorado (17% Hispanic) and Florida (19% Hispanic). Richardson as the VP nominee could impact these states as well as change assumptions about Arizona (19% Hispanic) and even Texas (25% Hispanic). The net effect could potentially reorder the Electoral College by stripping the bottom off the Republican electoral base.

There are two significant hurdles to this otherwise compelling choice for VP.

First, Richardson needs to get past Hillary Clinton. The Clinton’s “made” Bill Richardson with choice Executive branch postings that significantly burnished his credentials, making him a more appealing candidate for his later run for governor and president. Richardson paid back that early support by endorsing Obama.

If the Clinton’s do keep an “Enemies List” as is current political urban legend, Richardson has to be high on it. If Hillary doesn’t have the heft to get on the ticket herself, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility that she could veto a candidate not to her liking. This would be in keeping with the “Reagan tradition” where the former governor lost the ’76 nomination to President Ford by 117 votes, but effectively exercised a veto over Ford’s VP choice.

Second, is the more subtle and delicate question of whether a Richardson selection would be too much change for America at one time.

Obama-Richardson would pair the first African American and the first Hispanic together on a major Party ticket. It would be a powerful example of the change paradigm Obama claims to stand for, but it is necessarily a double edged sword. Its very audacity would highlight its historic novelty; the first non-white ticket in American history. It would be the equivalent of a cosmic throw of the dice in an otherwise Democratic year.  To be this close to the White House, Obama’s selection may need to be more measured.

The same is true, to a lesser extent with Senator Russ Feingold.

The three-term Wisconsin Senator has made a name for himself as a principled progressive. For the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, Feingold would be dream come true. He is the only Senator to have voted against both the original Patriot Act and the Iraq War resolution. He has been a strong and consistent war critic and civil liberties advocate. When the Party ran to the politically expedient, Feingold stood his ground.

But Feingold is not doctrinaire.  He voted in favor of the nomination of John Roberts to be Chief Justice. And he has been bipartisan, as the hallmark legislation that bears his name – McCain-Feingold – attests. The upper Midwest will be targeted by both campaigns, and Feingold can hold Wisconsin and influence sister states in the region.  Feingold is also a relative contemporary to Obama at age 53, fitting the image of generational change. In addition, Feingold would be the second Jewish vice presidential nominee, a distinction which proved so effective in 2000 for Al Gore in Florida that the state race came down to several hundred votes.

But a Feingold pick would align the Democrats with the most ideologically liberal ticket since Roosevelt-Wallace. Feingold lacks executive experience and is divorced and single, another optical challenge for Obama. If the race was only about ideology, Feingold would be an ideal choice. That there is more to the equation significantly complicates his selection.

The “Thatcher” Option:

There are only two female candidates that merit consideration, but only one who should make it to Obama’s short list.

First, of course, is Senator Hillary Clinton. She has 18 million reasons why she’s worthy of consideration. All other things being equal, Mrs. Clinton would be the choice if not for the terms and conditions of her national stature.

If Obama is the idealist, Clinton is the implementing realist. She knows and understands the informal wire diagram of power in Washington better than most and knows how to get things done. In a different form of government, Clinton would have made an excellent Prime Minister.

However, her star appeal cuts both ways with a public record that has been fully vetted, but which has nonetheless polarized voters.  There are few people who haven’t made up their minds about Hillary Clinton.  Add in the unprecedented wild card of a former president as the vice president’s husband and you have introduced both organizational uncertainty and best-forgotten personal history into voter equations.

A Clinton pick could unify the Party’s base, but will dilute the Obama change message to the broader electorate. Clinton represents something that is well known, but with baggage that keeps her nomination ultimately out or reach.

Her primary role in the VP process will be that of king maker.

No, if Obama is going to pick a woman, he will pick Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.  A Catholic raised in Ohio, Sebelius has been the rare effective Democratic governor in a historically Red state. In 2005, after her reelection, Sebelius was rated as one of the five best governors in America. She was able to eliminate over $1 billion in debt without raising taxes.

Sebelius is symbolic of the bipartisan/post-partisan paradigm that Obama promotes. In her 2006 reelection bid, a Republican changed parties to join her ticket in a Red state.  She is a pro-life Catholic endorsed by NARAL. She has been praised for her bipartisan record of accomplishment. Physically attractive, lithe and refined in a way not dissimilar from Obama, Sebelius would be a good complement.

The challenge of course, is whether any female not named Clinton can join the ticket.  To the extent that Clinton clears the way, Obama must decide two factors.  First, the extent to which he feels foreign policy credentials are imperative. And second, whether a female candidate other that Clinton is as beneficial, considering a potential downside that the ticket would represent too much change.

The Foreign Policy Pick:

In a campaign with no shortage of confidence, there have been whispers that Obama does not feel that he needs to compensate for his lack of direct foreign policy experience. But if foreign policy is ultimately the key to victory, there is only one real choice for Obama, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware.

One of the longest serving Senators, Biden has been in Washington long enough to chair both the Senate Judiciary and the Foreign Relations Committees. His Party bone fides are beyond reproach. It was under his tutelage that the nomination of Robert Bork for the Supreme Court was considered, and where the rejection of the former Judge became a verb; to be “Borked”.  Biden managed this as he was running for the Democratic nomination for president in ’88.

A dependable progressive on domestic policy, Biden has been a standout on foreign policy where his honesty, intelligence and aversion to crass politics have made him an articulate, steady and credible voice for the Democratic Party.  Biden has consistently reached across the aisle, to Jesse Helms during Republican control in the 90s, and more recently with Richard Lugar, in both the minority and majority.

A Biden pick does not come without risks. The Senator is legendary for his long and sometimes meandering monologues. While he was much more disciplined during his recent presidential run, the challenge still exists. He also has a record of borderline inappropriate comments that have variously required explanation, context or apology.  At 65, there is a generational divide similar to Rendell and others.

On balance, however, a Biden pick is a net asset. Having run two presidential campaigns a generation apart, Biden has been tested in the national spotlight. And importantly, through personal tragedy and public service, Biden has demonstrated courage, dignity and decency, all valuable qualities in a #2.

If Obama makes a pure foreign policy pick, it will be Biden.

The Nominee:

But if not a woman or a pure foreign policy play, who is the best VP candidate?

It would be a white male.

Someone who has significant executive experience as a political candidate and a successful record. Someone who might add electoral strength in his home state as well as other, critical regions. Someone who had exposure to foreign and defense policy. Someone who had backed Senator Clinton, but whose age and philosophy were roughly consistent with Obama’s.  Someone who could serve as vice president for eight years, and make a run on his own, solidifying generational change.  Someone with bipartisan and centrist leanings.

The answer is Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana.

If there was a vice presidential candidate from central casting, Bayh would be it.

Elected governor of Indiana in 1988 at age 32, Bayh went on to be re-elected in 1992 by the highest percentage of the vote in Indiana history in the “reddest” Midwestern state. Cautious, but successful, Bayh stressed fiscal responsibility.

His eight years were marked by the largest tax cut and companion budget surplus in state history. At the same time, he increased funding for education, committed to higher academic standards and new college opportunities. He strengthened law enforcement and improved environmental quality. More than 350,000 jobs were created in Indiana during Bayh’s term.

Elected to the Senate in 1998 by the largest victory margin for a Democrat in Indiana history, he was reelected easily in 2004. Bayh’s committee assignments in Banking, Small Business and Armed Services have given him broad exposure on national economic and military issues.

One need only look at a map to see the electoral advantages of a Bayh selection.

Bayh puts Indiana’s 13 reliably Republican electoral votes in jeopardy for the GOP.  Bayh would help the Democratic ticket throughout the Ohio River valley, which stretches from Pennsylvania through West Virginia, all-important Ohio, and into Kentucky.  Indiana also borders Michigan, a must hold state for the Democrats to win the election.

On its face, a Bayh selection would put Obama at odds with the Party’s liberal Netroots base. Bayh served as Chairman of the hated, Clinton-inspired Democrat Leadership Council (DLC) and serves as member of the Senate Centrist Coalition. Bayh voted in favor of the Iraq War resolution in 2003 and the Patriot Act in 2001 and 2006.  But there is more to Bayh’s record.

Bayh has been a critic of the Iraq War since 2003. He began calling for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation in 2004, and has said that he would not have voted for the War resolution if he had known then what he had found out since. Bayh favors a flexible timeline for withdrawal, which is consistent with Obama’s position.

Bayh has demonstrated his progressive bone fides through confirmation votes. Bayh voted against AG John Ashcroft, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Secretary of State Condi Rice, AG Alberto Gonzales, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. Bayh also voted against CAFTA and has called for tariffs against China to protect American manufacturers, making him mainstream for the AFL-CIO. Bayh is reasonably pro-choice and is a strong supporter of US small business.

It is a sign of Bayh’s successful political jujitsu that over the past seven years he has earned a 55% rating from the Chambers of Commerce of the US (CCUS) as well as an 85% rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA).

It goes without saying that Bayh, as a long supporter of Senator Clinton, would meet with her approval and help unify the Party. It should be reassuring to Obama that vetting on Bayh was already completed satisfactorily by John Kerry.

In sum, Bayh is a convincing reconciliation candidate.

He provides credible reassurance to voters with his long record of centrist competence, while remaining in the broad left-of-center mainstream of Democratic thought.

If the perception of Obama is of a candidate of rhetoric, uninformed by practical experience, a Bayh selection would offer a prescient, if equivocal audition of what Obama could become as president, without diminishing the nominee or his change message.

It would also demonstrate Obama’s canny understanding of how to sell a left-of-center agenda to a center-right nation.

It is the paradox of Obama’s campaign of change that the right VP candidate lay in the most risk-adverse choice. In Evan Bayh, Obama will have passed his first presidential test.

In Obama-Bayh, Republicans would find a most formidable opponent.

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