Vice Presidential Binds

OK, I said I was taking a break from new posts, but then I got worried: what if one of the candidates announces his selction for a running mate before I pick up regular writing for this blog again? I would lose the opportunity to comment on the how the choice they make will limit the effectiveness of their campaign strategies. And that’s something I don’t want to miss. After all, candidates and their advisors spend months and millions to devise the perfect strategy. And now it’s likely the most visible pre-election choice the candidates will make will undermine the investment. Isn’t poltics fun?

The campaign strategies of Senators John McCain and Barack Obama are pretty well in place. The Republican is the experienced maverick who talks straight and has the background to lead the nation during wartime. The proof is his military experience. It’s a point Senator McCain makes frequently. For example, when Senator Obama attacked Senator McCain for failing to support expansion of  to the GI Bill, Senator McCain countered, saying, “And I take a backseat to no one in my affection, respect and devotion to veterans. And I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did.”

It’s a good line and it highlights a fair distinction between the two candidates. One may question whether only service in the military allows a political leader to understand what’s at stake and what needs to be done during dangerous times such of these. But it’s a belief Senator McCain adheres to. He claims it as a basis for his pre-surge disagreements with the Administration on how the war in Iraq should be waged. And has explicitly questioned whether those without military service are qualified to be president. Back in November 2007 Senator McCain said, “There’s a clear division between those who have a military background and experience [with wartime issues] and people like [former Mayor Rudy] Giuliani, [former Governor] Romney and [former Senator Fred] Thompson who don’t – who chose to do other things when this nation was fighting its wars.”

And there’s the rub. When Senator McCain introduces his running mate, he will be saying, in essence, that this person has what it takes to be president. If that person lacks military experience it undermines his own core qualification. Otherwise it’s an admission that this “clear division” isn’t all that important.

That’s bad news for GOP VP front runner Governor Romney, but he’s not the only potential nominee to fail Senator McCain’s military service litmus test. So would former Governor Mike Huckabee, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman (or any of the women mentioned as possible selections), and Governors Charlie Crist of Florida, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. He can’t say they are qualified to be president, but then say Senator Obama isn’t for failing to serve in uniform.

The list of Republicans frequently mentioned as Vice Presidential nominees who pass the litmus test are few — actually, just two. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge (also a former Congressman and Governor of Pennsylvania) served in Viet Nam. And South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham served in the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General’s Corp. That’s a truly short list. 

Senator Obama is in a similar bind. His campaign strategy hinges on “Change We Can Believe In.” Out with the old (politics) and in with the new. Yet, he also needs to reassure voters his inexperience in higher office is not a detriment. One way to do that is to select a running mate with a deep resume – especially in foreign policy where Senator Obama is arguably weakest.

That would strengthen the argument for selecting Senator Joe Biden or Christopher Dodd. Yet they have each held office for longer than many Obama supporters have been alive. Senator Hillary Clinton is symbolic of the 90’s, not the 21st Century.

On the other hand, other potential running mates have political biographies not much longer than Senator Obama’s. Neither Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano nor Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius have experience on the national scene. Former General Wesley Clark has never held elected office.

Balancing “experience” and “new politics” will be tough. No candidate is perfect, but the two frequently mentioned Democrats who come closest are Senator Evan Bayh (two terms as Governor of Indiana and now in his second term in the Senate, including tenure on the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees) and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (former U.N. Ambassador and Congressman). Governor Richardson is has more of a maverick reputation than the Senator, although the Senator’s proven ability to win in a Red state highlights his ability to be beyond old-school partisanship. (Full disclosure, I’ve previously written about my belief that Senator Bayh as a the Vice Presidential nominee best strengthens the Democratic ticket

The selection of a running mate says a lot about the presidential candidate. Any choice carries both political benefits and baggage. What’s significant is that neither Senator McCain or Senator Obama have a lot of choices that bolster their core messages.

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