Thursday, June 19, 2008

Vetoing the Vice Presidential Names: Let the Fight Begin

By Stuart Rothenberg

As the names of a seemingly endless number of would-be vice presidential running mates in both parties circulate this summer, the one thing you can be sure of is that there will be an increasing effort by groups to make certain some of those mentioned are not selected.

In a signed opinion piece last week, Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart warned presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) about selecting former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) as his running mate. The reason: Nunn “helped lead the fight against allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military and was the force behind the disastrous ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ compromise.”

“If Obama taps Nunn, he could end up adding gay men and lesbians to the list of disgruntled Democrats. They might not vote for [Arizona Sen. John] McCain, but they might very well stay home,” Capehart writes. The editorial writer makes that assertion even though, in the same piece, he notes that Nunn recently said that “don’t ask, don’t tell” should be revisited.

Frankly, the assertion that gays — liberal and Democratic gays, that is — may sit out the presidential race if Nunn is chosen by Obama is difficult to take seriously.

Given Obama’s record in Illinois and in the Senate, his overall ideology and the effusive endorsement of him earlier this month by the Human Rights Campaign, “the nation’s largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender civil rights group,” it’s absurd to suggest that politically interested gays who otherwise agree with Obama and share his values would withhold their vote if he selected Nunn to join his ticket.

But of course, that opinion piece wasn’t meant to be political analysis. Rather, it was an attempt to muscle Obama away from Nunn as a running mate — to create even the impression that selecting the former Georgia Senator might create trouble for Obama. And avoiding trouble is the first rule for picking a running mate.

You’d think that Obama’s position on gays in the military might be a little more important than his running mate’s. And you might even think that a potential running mate would be evaluated on more than a single issue to see whether he or she could serve the president, and the country, in an important and useful way.

You can bet that sometime soon conservatives and some people in the pro-life community will throw down the gauntlet and warn their eventual nominee, McCain, that he better not select former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as his running mate.

Ridge, it’s certainly true, was more pro-choice than pro-life, and social conservatives surely would prefer a different partner for McCain. Republicans will stay home if Ridge is picked as McCain’s running mate, we will be informed by conservative leaders who probably won’t have compelling data to support their point but will rely on the same kind of scenario that Capehart made in the Post.

Then there are the likely complaints that will come from supporters of Israel at the mention of Obama possibly considering adding outgoing Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) to the Democratic ticket.

Hagel, who served in the Army in Vietnam and received two Purple Hearts, has the kind of credentials (including an extensive business background and a Republican pedigree) that would play right into Obama’s message of bringing people together. But the pro- Israel community doesn’t regard Hagel merely as unhelpful. It sees him as a problem, and you can bet Democratic activists will attempt to steer Obama away from the Nebraskan.

There are, of course, good reasons to eliminate certain names and to continue to consider others. Obama already has problems in the pro-Israel and Jewish communities, so adding Hagel to his ticket would severely aggravate an existing problem.

Geography, age, experience, foreign policy or military expertise, gender, ideology, party and even ethnicity are all factors that both campaigns will consider, even if only in passing. But both Obama and McCain should think more broadly about the message their selections will send.

Both presidential hopefuls are running on a message of change. Obama talks specifically about bringing Americans together, while McCain talks more about changing the way Washington, D.C., works. What better way to kick off the key phase of their campaigns then to pick a running mate who displays their dedication to their message?

For Obama, that certainly doesn’t mean selecting former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) to make working-class Democrats feel more comfortable or even Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to “unify” the party. Instead, it means picking a Republican, such as Hagel, or possibly a Democrat who has been politically successful in a Republican state. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana are obvious examples.

No, they probably couldn’t deliver their states to Obama, but that’s not the point. With the first truly big decision that Obama would make, he would be showing his seriousness about his fundamental message by picking someone who epitomizes it.

For McCain, picking a conservative is a no-brainer. It just isn’t necessarily the best choice. It’s too predictable and reeks too much of traditional politics.

Like Obama, McCain has the opportunity to show with his first major decision that he wants to change the way things work. Picking Connecticut Independent Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman certainly would do that, but Ridge or a quirkier pick, such as former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, would also send the same message.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 16, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.