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Who should be VP? Pundits’ picks for Obama

By Susan Albright
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Here’s one way to spend your Fourth of July: Mulling over who Barack Obama should pick as his runningmate. That’s what a lot of pundits are doing. Part one of two essays.

Part one of two essays

Might Obama look to his one-time opponents, like New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson?
REUTERS/Richard Clement
Might Obama look to his one-time opponents, like New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson?

Face it: It’s time to move past the Twins and the weather. Take the next step — at the next neighborhood barbecue or the Fourth of July picnic, have a go at the VP prospects. We’re going to set you up for an in-the-know conversation starter.

Well, that may be over promising, but you’ll at least be familiar with the names politics watchers are tossing about.

Of course they may be totally off-track. If you don’t trust them, we’ll give you the results of an “evolutionary optimization” algorithmic experiment that came up with the same name for both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain. But first things first.

Today we start with Obama. Tomorrow, McCain.

Who should be VP? And who’s most likely?

“There’s no way to anticipate the thought processes of Democrat Obama and Republican John McCain, no formula for weighing the factors involved,” writes Larry Eichel, senior writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“And this year, as ever, lessons learned seem to have been forgotten. Consider that much of the speculation has centered on individuals presumed to be able to deliver their states in November — even though few running mates have delivered states before, and current polls suggest it’s not likely to happen in 2008, either.

“Obama and McCain could announce their picks at any time between now and the late-summer conventions. History suggests later rather than sooner; nominees tend to want to weigh their options as long as possible.”

Obama watchers variously opine that he needs:

• a white male

• a Hispanic

• a woman (but not just any woman)

• Hillary

• a national security expert (preferably a general)

• an older man who’s a respected insider

• a youthful, fresh outsider

• someone qualified to be president

• but not someone like Cheney who might appear to BE president

• a regular kind of guy who can talk to union members (and maybe even bowl)

• someone from … (name a state that’s not Illinois)

• a Republican

Names keep cropping up
That covers a lot of ground; the list could be endless. Nevertheless, certain names do tend to crop up, so let’s start with them, and with the Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus, a longtime Washington reporter with credibility.

His (excerpted) take on five names frequently bandied about:

Hillary Rodham Clinton: She’s supported by millions of Democratic voters, has pledged to campaign for the ticket. …  But Obama aides sound distinctly cool to the idea.

Jim Webb: Obama likes the outspoken senator from Virginia, a Marine Corps veteran who was secretary of the Navy under President Reagan. But he may be too outspoken. … Webb would also need to explain why he once led the fight against allowing women in the military to fill combat roles.

Sam Nunn: The former senator, 69, a defense expert, has advised Obama on nuclear issues and could help carry his native Georgia and other states in the South. But he’s been retired from electoral politics for more than a decade, and many gay Democrats oppose him because he helped block President Clinton’s proposal in 1993 to allow gays to serve openly in the military.

Joseph R. Biden Jr.: The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has worked closely with Obama on Iraq and other issues. He would help close the nominee’s ‘experience deficit’ on national security, but he’s publicly criticized Obama’s willingness to meet with leaders of Iraq and North Korea. And he comes from Delaware, one of the smallest states in the nation.

Evan Bayh: People around Obama have confirmed that he is under consideration. The Indiana senator, a moderate, was a prominent Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter in the primaries, so his choice would be another step toward party unity. ‘There’s a lot to recommend him,’ said one Democratic strategist … . ‘He’s safe.’ Bayh’s keynote speech at the 1996 Democratic National Convention was not a home run, but Obama may not need another spellbinding orator on the ticket.”

Another take
Now let’s try another analyst, and a few more names. John Heilemann of New York magazine’s Daily Intel noted that “until last week, because of the Obama team’s consistent adherence to a kind of political Taoism — it was Lao Tzu, the father of that creed, who coined the timeless aperçu, ‘Those who know, don’t speak; those who speak, don’t know’ — the nominee’s thinking about the veepstakes has been entirely opaque.

“That changed last week, though not a whole lot, when Obama’s campaign chief, David Plouffe, gave a 90-minute presentation followed by a press briefing at Democratic National Committee HQ in Washington. Asked if the ability to help carry a state was among the criteria his boss would employ in selecting a No. 2, Plouffe replied, ‘I don’t think that’s going be a factor.’ He added that Obama’s pick would be ‘qualified to be president and someone who’ll be a partner in governing.’ ”

Before tackling a list of contenders, Heilemann pointed out that “This is not an easy circle to square: Where exactly does one find a running mate untainted by Old Politics, an outsider who represents a clean break with the past and embodies transformative potential, but who also happens to be (to borrow a phrase) ready from day one to be commander-in-chief?”

Exactly. He gamely took on a few possibilities (also excerpted), nevertheless:

Kathleen Sebelius. Sebelius is the 60-year-old governor of Kansas and one of Obama’s most voluble and visible endorsers, a fresh-faced, popular, pragmatic chief executive of a red state with a terrific record on issues affecting blue-collar workers. What’s not to like?

“More than a few things, says a source of mine, a savvy operative with ties to organized labor. ‘She’s a terrible public speaker with no sense of her crowd and how to connect with it,’ this person e-mailed me… . ‘And I can’t imagine how anybody would mistake her for Hillary Clinton just because they are both women. Seems to me a lot of Hillary supporters might actually be irritated with Obama for picking Sebelius, think he was patronizing them by selecting any old damn woman, rather than the specific woman they actually admire.’

2. Joe Biden. The senior senator from Delaware and two-time White House aspirant is probably the best foreign-policy mind in the Democratic Party. He’s also a shot-and-a-beer kinda guy who plays well with working-class voters…and a Catholic to boot. And Obama genuinely likes him, no small thing in any veepstakes. Now, Biden has always suffered from his tendency to run off at the piehole. But the deeper problem with him is that he reeks of the Senate, the Beltway, the entire culture that Obama has promised to transform. … In all of this, Biden — like fellow senators Chris Dodd and John Kerry, and former senators Tom Daschle and, God help us, Sam Nunn — presents the opposite problem of the Sebelius dilemma. It requires a nearly hallucinatory degree of mental gymnastics to argue that they represent the change we’ve been waiting for.”

3. Chuck Hagel. No less a figure than Obama-supporting John Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorenson has urged the nominee to consider the Nebraska senator. And Hagel clearly offers an ingenious way out of the bind that Obama has built for himself. He has enormous cred on national security while at the same time being loudly antiwar. And because of his status as a member of the GOP, Hagel as V.P. would be a vivid symbol of Obama’s stated desire to reach across the aisle for the sake of national unity….

“But positioning is one thing. Governing is another. And Hagel really is a Republican. An interesting, principled, non-doctrinaire Republican, but a Republican all the same — a bona fide conservative, even.

“These three are only meant to be representative examples. Other possibilities abound. But it’s hard to think of anyone who would fit the change-AND-experience bill that Obama is trying to fill — except, that is, for a certain lady in a pantsuit. Hillary Clinton, of course, has plenty of baggage. And she is nobody’s idea of an outsider. But given her gender, it wouldn’t take much doing message-wise to frame her as an emblem of change.…”

Also check out Daily Intel’s handy dandy “Who’s Who” guide to 12 potential Obama veeps, by Peter Keating, complete with pros and cons for each, a “Google Meter” rating (the number of hits you get if you enter the candidate’s name, “Barack Obama” and “vice-president” into Google), and a “Bottom Line.”

Among Keating’s top dozen: the aforementioned Gov. Sebelius (his “most likely” pick), former Sen. John Edwards (“Bottom Line: A.G is more likely than V.P.”) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (best on Google Meter). Among others noted: Sen. Jim Webb and Gov. Tim Kaine, both of Virginia; Ret. Gen. Wesley Clark, Clinton, Hagel and some lesser-knowns.

But what indications has the candidate himself given? According to Reuters, “Obama said first and foremost was the need to find someone ready to step into the Oval Office right away should that be necessary.

” ‘I want somebody who can be a good president if anything happened to me,’ Obama told a news conference in Chicago. ‘I want somebody who can be a good adviser and counsel to me and tell me where he or she thinks I’m wrong, not just on national security policy but on domestic policy as well.’ “

Not a lot of specifics there, no real sign of whether conventional wisdom or creativity will out.

Some longshot possibilities

Which leads Lisa Lerer of to this question: “Could the mantra of change mean that the year of the longshot running mate has at last arrived?

“Just in case it has, we asked 14 consultants, campaign staffers, political historians and key fundraisers to name their most unconventional — but reasonably viable — picks.”

Among the results: President Clinton’s secretary of defense, William Cohen; his treasury secretary, Robert Rubin; and his health and human services secretary, Donna Shalala. Not exactly fresh new faces ….

If all these names don’t seem right, a Massachusetts company, Affinnova, “used ‘evolutionary optimization’ to trim down a list of 100 potential veeps to the single strongest candidate for each party,” writes Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post.

The winners?

“There’s just one: retired Gen. Colin Powell.

“Powell, who has said countless times that he has no interest in running for office, wound up atop both the Democratic and Republican lists,” writes Cillizza. ” ‘Likely voters for both parties in the study indicate Powell’s strong leadership and dependability as factors for choosing him first,’ said a release on the findings.”

Will Obama and McCain listen?

“Probably not. But maybe they should, as Affinnova has done work for the likes of Wal-Mart,  Procter & Gamble and Microsoft.”

Susan Albright, a MinnPost managing editor, writes about national and foreign developments. She can be reached at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Tomorrow: Who should be VP for McCain?