Obama veepstakes surprise?

Elections — By on August 19, 2008 at 6:29 pm

This is a bit longer than my typical post, but if you’re interested at all in U.S. politics there is a lot here that will interest you and hopefully provide some food for thought and debate…

Speculation over Barack Obama’s vice presidential candidate is reaching a fever pitch this week, with the selection widely expected to be made known between Wednesday and Saturday. Most reporting indicates that there is a three person shortlist – Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine.

If that’s truly the case, then Biden seems to be the best choice of the three for reasons that are quite well expressed here and here. Indeed, a lot of smart people today are predicting that Biden is going to be Obama’s pick. However, these things rarely go according to conventional wisdom. Therefore, I have to agree with Nate Silver that there is a reasonable prospect of a surprise choice.

Ah, but who would be the surprise? All along, Obama has really had two options – someone who “balances” the ticket by adding a long record in national politics and foreign policy, or an “outsider” who reinforces the message of bringing change to Washington. Silver thinks a surprise choice is more likely to come from the first group and he lays out the contenders: Hilary Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and Colin Powell. Wow! Can you imagine the media shock wave any one of these would set off? It would be a perfect Obama head fake and produce reams of publicity heading into the Democratic convention.

Frankly, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Obama went in this direction. The problem is, I have difficulty making the case for why it would be any one of the four.

Powell? I seriously, seriously doubt he’s interested. Besides, two African-Americans on the same ticket?

Clinton? It would make a lot of sense, but how do you finesse the chemistry between the two and what do you do about Bill?

Gore? Yes, it’d be amazing – but why would Gore want to do it? He’s already ruled out the possibility pretty definitively.

Kerry? If he hadn’t lost in ’04 he might be the perfect candidate – foreign policy and defense credentials. But an Obama-Kerry combo may well be dubbed the all-elitist ticket by the GOP.

Nevertheless, a choice like this would add some serious heft and media buzz to the Obama campaign. Don’t discount the possibility of, say, Kerry or Clinton emerging.

On the other hand, if Obama wants to reinforce his message of change he needs to pick someone from outside Washington or a relative newcomer to the national scene. Kaine is the only one of the three “finalists” who fits this description and is said to have a great relationship with Obama. But if it’s going to be a surprise choice then it can’t be Kaine. Other options, though, could include New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius or Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Let’s review them briefly:

Richardson is an excellent choice on paper. A Western governor with Washington and foreign policy experience, and he’s Hispanic to boot. He may well guarantee New Mexico and Nevada for the Democratic ticket. But he didn’t impress in the Democratic primary season and there has been very little buzz about him. Still, he’d be an interesting choice who would bring some considerable strengths to the ticket.

Warner was one of my early favorites. An extremely popular governor of Virginia, he considered his own presidential run this year before settling on a race for the U.S. Senate. He was a business entrepreneur before entering politics and as governor had a knack for connecting with rural Virginians. He would put Virginia seriously in play in November. For more on Warner, go here. I could see an Obama-Warner ticket as a rerun of Clinton-Gore in 1992 in terms of symbolizing change and a new generation of Democratic politicians. Unfortunately, Warner is not only in the midst of a Senate campaign, he also took himself out of the running and is scheduled to give the convention’s keynote speech on Tuesday.

Webb is a Senator, but he’s in his first term and earlier served as Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration. He’s a decorated veteran of Vietnam, a voice on military issues, a candidate who appeals to rural voters and to Reagan Democrats. Also, like Biden, he’s a feisty personality who would be a good personality balance to the calm Obama. Like Warner, though, he also seemed to take himself out of the running.

Sebelius was an early favorite of the pundits and Obama seems to be enamored with her. A popular Democratic governor of Republican Kansas, she would emphasize Obama’s goal of ushering in a new era of politics. However, she has no national security credentials, is untested on the national stage and her selection would be sure to raise the hackles of the small but vocal group of Hillary supporters who insist that no female other than Clinton should be selected as VP.

Then there is Schweitzer, who was my other early favorite along with Warner. Relatively unknown nationally, he seems an unlikely selection at this late date because, like Sebelius, he really hasn’t been vetted by the national media. He’s also in the midst of a re-election campaign. But he would be an ideal symbol of a changing of the guard in both Washington and the Democratic party. Schweitzer is another popular Democratic governor of a Republican state and, like Webb, would bring a bit of “regular guy” balance to the ticket.

More importantly, though, Schweitzer brings two other factors – credibility in the West and on energy policy. In the West, Obama is believed to be making a push to redraw the electoral map. Schweitzer may tip Colorado into the Democratic column, along with New Mexico, and could very well put Montana and North Dakota into play. Additionally, he is considered somewhat of an expert on energy issues, which has emerged as a key topic in this year’s election. He also spent several years working on irrigation projects in Saudi Arabia and speaks fluent Arabic, lending force to Obama’s argument about an America that needs to re-engage with the world. For other endorsements of Schweitzer, go here and here. Granted, he doesn’t add national security heft to the ticket, but he brings most everything else that Obama could be looking for.

So, who is it going to be? The pundits are pointing in the direction of a safe pick like Biden. Some are speculating about a shock wave selection like Clinton or Kerry. None of these would surprise me and they’d lend credence to Obama’s stated desire to build a strong “team of rivals” in his cabinet. But if Obama wants to double down on the change message and go with a Washington outsider, he should look to the West, which could be fertile territory for the Democratic Party. Obama could buck the conventional wisdom with any of these selections, but I personally think the best choice among these would be Schweitzer.

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