What if McCain Had Kept Talking — and Acting — Straight?

Always a bad sign: Senator John McCain has come to comparing his campaign to the come-from-behind win by President Harry Truman in 1948. While Senator McCain has solidified the Republican base behind his candidacy, his standing with independents is surprisingly poor. Surprising, because Senator McCain had spent decades in Congress fostering a maverick, straight talking image that should have had a natural appeal to non-partisans in the electorate. His failure to connect with these voters now is a blunder straight out of Marketing 101.

Senator McCain had a strong brand leading into the general election. He was perceived as an independent maverick, willing to take on his own party and talk straight to the American people. If he had stuck to this image, in both word and deed, he might not be playing catch-up with eight days to go before election day. Just as consumers feel uncertain about a product that changes its attributes suddenly, voters don’t take well to a candidate who changes dramatically as November approaches. Yet the vehemence with which Senator McCain has distanced himself from his (former) brand is remarkable.

It began in the primary. Having attacked leaders in the Religious Right in 2000 he now embraced them. Having proven his “straight talk” bona fides by attacking President George Bush’s tax cuts, especially on high income Americans, as foolish and misguided, he now supported them. Having promised a positive campaign on the issues he attacked his opponent, Senator Barack Obama, as an empty suit celebrity.

There were still glimpses of the old Senator McCain on display. His call for 10 town hall debates with no moderator was brilliant. If accepted by Senator Obama it would have changed the tenor of the entire campaign. His attacks on Senator Obamafor failing to keep his promise to accept federal funding was on point and, even better, reminded voters of Senator McCain’s commitment to campaign reform. His response to supporters in a town hall meeting that they need not fear an Obama presidency was noble.

Senator McCain’s campaign, however, is consistent only in its inconsistency. It seems unable to focus on any one theme for more than a few days. So instead of emphasizing the maverick Senator McCain, he put on display the erratic Candidate McCain, talking about everything and everyone from Brittany Spears to William Ayers and socialism to buying up mortgages.

What undermined Senator McCain’s brand with finality, however, was the selection of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. On the surface this seemed like a bold and unorthodox move. Nominating a popular governor with a demonstrable record of reform and of fighting corruption made sense. That she was a woman made the move even more exciting. From a short term political perspective, that Governor Palin secured the core of the GOP for Senator McCain’s candidacy was a huge win.

Yet it also did more to push independent voters away than any other act Senator McCain took in this campaign. After blistering attacks on Senator Obama for lacking the experience to be commander-in-chief, Senator McCain selected a running mate even less qualified. Her conservative political views put her outside the mainstream where independent voters reside. Misstating her record concerning earmarks made Governor Palin out to be a hypocrite and Senator McCain to be either ill informed or a liar.

Selecting a running mate is the only “presidential” decision a presidential candidate makes before the election. It’s the best window voters have into what their administration might look like. Selecting someone has unqualified to be president as Governor Palin undercut Senator McCain’s image. Defending her required the campaign to contort reality (you can see Russia from Alaska — well, yes, from an island Governor Palin has never visited). Contrast this with Senator Obama’s choice of Senator Joe Biden. No one questions his qualifications to be president. It was a solid, unflashy selection. It showed Senator Obama wanted a vice president who would be a part of his inner circle, who would be willing to challenge him, someone who would make him a better president.

Does anyone think Governor Palin will be a part of President McCain’s inner circle? Does anyone really think she could challenge him on a broad range of issues? And if she did, would a President McCain care? Does anyone think that in selecting Governor Palin as his running mate, Senator McCain put country first?

Senator McCain had to pretend the answers to all these questions were yes. As the answers are, for most independents, a resounding “no,” doing so contradicted Senator McCain’s hard won brand. Couple this with his erratic response to the economic meltdown (claiming the fundamentals of the economy are sound followed by a recognition the economy was in crisis just hours later) and an over-the-top, nasty and negative campaign, and the straight talking, honest politician disappears behind a haze of smoke and mirrors.

For the fun of it, imagine Senator McCain had selected someone less exciting, but more qualified, than Governor Palin. Governor Charlie Crist of Florida or former Pennsylvania Governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge come to mind. The GOP base would have been furious (especially over Secretary Ridge, who is generally pro-choice), but it would have bolstered the McCain Brand. Either selection would be consistent with Senator McCain’s image. Either would be appealing to independent voters. The Republican base might have torpedoed a McCain-Crist or a McCain-Ridge ticket. But would they really sit idly by and let Senator Obama waltz into the White House? It’s unlikely.

Senator McCain might still win this election. If he loses a large part of the reason will be the superior campaign and message of Senator Obama and the economic crisis, two factors he couldn’t control. But a contributing factor will be his own doing. Senator McCain is responsible for turning his back on who he was and what he once stood for.


Press Excluded from Biden Meeting: What Are They Thinking?

Woe hen Governor Sarah Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee, engaged in her whirlwind tour of heads-of-state earlier this week, the McCain campaign sought to exclude reporters — but not photographers and television cameras — from being in the room. By doing so they expressed a total lack of confidence in Governor Palin to perform appropriately on the world stage, totally undermining any political benefit from the photo opportunity. Instead, they handed the Obama campaign a gift: it wasn’t the “left-wing media” or political opponents undermining their vice presidential candidate — it was Senator John McCain’s own campaign doing the damage.

One might expect Senator Barack Obama’s campaign to keep the story alive as long as possible, emphasizing the difference between Governor Palin and the Democratic party vice presidential nominee, Senator Joe Biden.  Senator Biden’s foreign policy credentials comes from long experience, proven expertise and bi-partisan respect, not meaningless proximity to a desolate portion of Russia.

One might expect the Obama campaign to emphasize this difference, but that’s not what’s happened. Instead, when Senator Biden held a meeting with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashivli today in Wisconsin, reporters were excluded from the room — but not photographers and television cameras. The reason, according to the Obama campaign and as reported by the Associated Press, is that “It’s a private meeting between the senator and a head of state.”

So what? Last month Senator Bident and President Saakashvili met in Georgia in the aftermath of the Russion invasion of the country. Maybe the campaign was thinking this was simply a continuation of that meeting. Senator Biden is, after all, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This would take the meeting out of the realm of politics.

No way. Senator Biden is running to be Vice President of the United States. If this was a private “official” meeting, exclude the photographers along with the reporters. If there’s a photo opportunity, reporters should be allowed in the room as well. It’s all or nothing.

Instead, the Obamacampaign gives the McCain campaign a “get out of stupid decisions free” card. When criticized for excluding reporters from Governor Palin’s meetings with heads of state, all the McCain campaign needs to say is, “Senator Biden does it, too.” In one act, the Obama campaign turned a major snafu by the McCain campaign into just another example of business as usual.

A spokesman for the Obama campaign noted, accurately, that the “transparency between the Biden campaign and the Palin campaign is worlds apart.” Unlike Governor Palin, who campaigns in a bubble through which few unscripted moments are allowed to pass, Senator Biden is accessible to the public and the media. That speaks highly of Senator Obama’s selection of Senator Biden as his running mate. And it reflects poorly on Senator McCain’s selection of Governor Palin.

That may be true, but by imitating the McCain campaign’s handling of reporters during photo opportunities, the bama campaign diminishes the relevancy of that difference.

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McCain Campaign Undermining Palin: Is There a Reason?

Senator John McCain’s campaign is quick to attack anyone who dares questions Governor Sarah Palin’s qualifications — or the lack of them — to serve as Vice President and, potentially, President. Yet they seem intent to underscore the concern in ways that are insulting to the Governor.

Consider the latest fiasco. In an attempt to burnish her foreign policy credentials, Governor Palin is holding private meetings with foreign leaders today and tomorrow. For instance, today she’s met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Columbian President Alvaro Uribe today (she’s scheduled to meet with former Secretary of State henry Kissinger later, too, but he only sounds foreign). Tomorrow she and Senator McCain will meet with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and Ukranian President Viktor Yuschenko.  Back on her own again, Governor Palin is expected to meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talbani, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

This is an impressive group of leaders from countries in the thick of current international concern and crisis. The McCain campaign will no doubt trumpet the meetings as proof that the Alaskan Governor has the mettle to deal as an equal with world leaders. By attempting to keep reporters (but not cameras) away from Governor Palin during these meetings, however, the Republicans are undercutting their candidate’s credibility.

According to the Associated Press, the McCain campaign barred most reporters from her meeting with Afghan President Karzai. They invited cameras in, but even tried to deny entry to a television producer with a notepad (he was eventually allowed into the suite). The photographers and cameramen were ushered out so the Governor and President could have a private conversation, so what was the McCain campaign scared about?

Photo sessions are often used by reporters to ask questions of the participants. And the McCain campaign has kept Governor Palin under a carefully controlled, near total press embargo. She’s done two interviews, both relatively soft. (The one with Fox News was an embarrassing love fest with Sean Hannity fawning over the GOP running mate. ABC’s Charles Gibson didn’t even give Governor Palin a hard time for claiming foreign policy credibility because Russia is visible from parts of Alaska).

In the roughly four weeks since being selected as Senator McCain’s running mate, those are the only two press interviews Governor Palin has given. There’s been no press conferences. No quick question and answer sessions before or after her speeches. No questioning permitted during photo opportunities like those taking place today and tomorrow.

It’s insulting. It’s insulting, and bordering on sexist, because it implies Governor Palin is unable to handle herself in front of the big, mean media crowd. It’s insulting to the American people because this woman is seeking the second highest office in the land. We deserve to hear her speak without a script, without the interference of her handlers, and with those, unlike Mr. Hannity, who want to learn about her political philosophy and beliefs, not just marvel at how fresh and different a politician she is. Who knows, maybe she’d talk to someone who would challenge her on supporting the Bridge to Nowhere and the pork barrell financed Bridge to Wasilla?

The McCain campaign is trying to have it both ways. But if Governor Palin is qualified to be Vice President, she’s qualified to meet the press. If she’s not qualified to be Vice President, then Senator McCain needs to explain why he selected her. The McCain campaign’s actions speak louder than their words (or their photo opportunities). They need to demonstrate that Governor Palin can not only meet with friendly world leaders, but that she can handle a sometimes hostile national press.

By preventing Governor Palin from taking questions from the media, the McCain campaign is communicating that it doesn’t believe she is up to the job she’s been nominated to fill.

Palin Needs to Come Clean on Earmarks

The public vetting of Governor Sarah Palin raises questions about the private vetting of her by the campaign of Republican nominee Senator John McCain. Every few days something new emerges that raises questions about her qualification to be Vice President of the United States. Some of this is to be expected. Senator McCain has been vetted through two competitive presidential elections (not to mention four statewide campaigns in Arizona). The qualifications of his Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama, has been debated and explored thoroughly since he announced his candidacy 19 months ago (in addition to his single statewide campaign in Illinois). Senator Obama’s running mate, Senator Joe Biden, has run for president twice and first ran statewide in Delaware in 1972. Governor Palin’s vetting, instead of taking months, has needed to be crammed into the roughly 60 days between Senator McCain selecting her as his running mate and the November 4th election. So the intensity of her public vetting is not surprising.

What’s dismaying is that the in the frenzy to learn more about the latest political celebrity factual nuggets are being thrown together with falsehoods and irrelevant sideshows. Her five-month old son is hers. That her 17-year old daughter is pregnant is nobody’s business but the family’s. Get over it.

What matters is whether she’s qualified to be a heart beat from the oval office. That means the focus should be on her experience, her integrity and her abilities. Much has been written about her lack of experience. Much has been written about her amazing political abilities and some about her executive experience. What’s likely to take the luster off her candidacy, however, is what’s emerging about her honesty.

Take the bridges. At least two bridges were earmarked for taxpayer dollars in Alaska. Governor Palin supported the “Bridge to Nowhere” until it proved politically unpopular. It’s unclear whether she said “No thanks” before Congress said “Never mind,” but she definitely turned against that bridge only after it was doomed.

Then there’s the “other” bridge. This one, the “Bridge to Wasilla,” officially known as “Don Young’s Way” in honor of the Alaskan Congressman who successfully obtained the earmark. According to the Associated Press, Governor Palin has been supportive of this bridge linking her home town to Anchorage. To be fair, the article notes that she’s “called for a review of the bridge’s financing plans and raised concerns about its financial risks for the state.” But that’s a far cry from opposing it as Senator McCain did, calling it a “monstrosity” that was “terrifying in its fiscal consequences.”

Governor Palin no doubt used the informed those vetting her on behalf of Senator McCain that she opposed the Bridge to Nowhere. But did she tell them she supported it first? Did she tell them she sees the Bridge to Wasilla as something different?

Then there’s the stunning lack of knowledge Senator McCain’s earmark addiction as Governor. Appearing on ABC’s “The View,” Senator McCain claimed Governor Palin had sought no earmarks from Washington since becoming Governor. The fact is that Governor Palin has requested $198 million in earmarks for 2009 and as recently as February of this year. She sought $256 million of these apparently tainted dollars in her first year as Governor, last year. The reality is, no state benefits as much as Alaska from earmarks. Senator McCain rails against the $936 million in earmarks requested by Senator Obama in his first two years in Washington (he asked for no earmarks this year), yet Alaska receives more of these dollars on a per capita basis than any other state — twice as much as the second ranking state according to the Los Angeles Times. 

Did she simply not tell the McCain vetters about this? Did she tell them about her article in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on March 5, 2008 in which she writes, “I am not among those who have said ‘earmarks are nothing more than pork projects being shoveled home by an overeager congressional delegation.'” And “My role at the federal level is simply to submit the most well-conceived earmark requests we can.” And “The federal budget, in its various manifestations, is incredibly important to us (Alaska), and congressional earmarks are one aspect of this relationship.”

Does any of this sound like the crusader against earmarks Senator McCain describes? Did his campaign know she supports “reasonable” earmarks?

Governor Palin has stood by while Senator McCain say she’ll help eradicate earmarks. OK, the first time she let it pass. There was a lot going on. But the second time? The sixth time? The tenth time? 

And did Senator McCain really believe she had sought no earmarks as Governor? If so, who told him so?

Integrity is not just about refraining from making outright lies. It’s also about refusing to be silent in the face of lies — or, to be charitable, misinformation. Governor Palin lets Senator McCain and his campaign continue to misrepresent her position in support of earmarks. She consistently misrepresents her position on earmarks in her own speeches. By doing so, Governor Palin is demonstrating a lack of integrity that raises questions about her qualifications to be Vice President.

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Palin: Ready on Day Two?

Some random questions about Alaska Governor Sarah Palin:

  1. Would Governor Palin be ready on Day Two?
  2. If Senator John McCain would select someone as conservative as Governor Palin to be Vice President, what kind of conservative is he likely to choose for the Supreme Court?
  3. Senator McCain has said that military experience is critical for a president. Governor Palin has none, so is military experience no longer necessary?
  4. Before becoming Governor, Sarah Palin was Mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. The population has mushroomed of late, from about 6,500 to around 9.000 or so. In most small towns the mayor is simply the person who chairs the meeting, but is pretty much a first-among-equals with the council members. A city manager often serves as the chief operating officer. What was her role as Mayor? And given the difference between the federal bureaucracy and Wasilla’s, does it matter?
  5. The GOP claims Sarah Palin’s 20 months as Governor of Alaska gives her “executive experience” beyond that of any of the other candidates. Given that Alaska is the roughly the size of Memphis, Tennessee, does that mean any mayor of a city with a population of 690,000 or so is qualified to be president of the United States?
  6. Why are Republican operatives so afraid of answering the question, “Is Governor Palin qualified to be president of the United States?” When asked, they always change the subject. I’ve not heard one give a direct “yes” or “no” answer.
  7. It’s March 2009. Russia invades the Ukraine. President McCain calls in his closest foreign policy advisers to discuss a United States response. Does anyone really believe Vice President Palin would be in the room?
  8. If Vice President Palin disagrees with Senator McCain on an issue, will he really care?
  9. If Governor Palin’s lacks the experience to be president, does Senator Barack Obama? After all, he only  has three years in the United States Senate and seven years in the Illinois State Senate.
  10. Does #7 mean there’s more to being president than holding public office — and if so, does Governor Palin possess it?
  11. Does Senator McCain really believe that Governor Palin is the second best Republican in the country to be president?
  12. If Senator McCain wanted a woman on the ticket, what made Governor Palin a better choice than former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Senator Susan Collins, Senator Olympia Snowe, Senator Elizabeth Dole or Governor Jodi Rell?
  13. Will Senator McCain continue to attack Senator Obama for lacking the necessary experience to be president now that he’s selected someone with even less experience to be the president-in-waiting?
  14. Will women vote for Governor Palin because she’s a woman if they disagree with her on abortion, the threat of global warming, teaching creationism as a valid alternative to evolution?
  15. In other words, when casting their ballots, does it matter to women what a woman thinks or merely that she is a woman?
  16. What’s wrong with the P.U.M.A.? I saw one of their spokespersons on television who said Democratic women would abandon the party because of Governor Palin being on the GOP ticket. Apparently they don’t care about policy or Supreme Court appointments. Their level of anger is reaching clinical proportions — hopefully they’ll get help soon.
  17. Governor Palin is a proven fighter for higher ethics in government, yet she’s under investigation for abuse of her powers in Alaska. During the investigation a tape of one of her aides pressuring an agency head to fire her ex-brother-in-law came to light. Has she fired that aide — and if not, why not?
  18. Republicans claim that Governor Palin’s approval rating of 80+ percent is part of what makes her qualified to be Vice President (and, by extension, President). When that approval rating tumbles, as it surely will over the next two months, will that make her less qualified?
  19. Does Senator McCain really want to be president? Because based on his first “presidential decision” — the selection of Governor Palin to be his running mate — it sure doesn’t look that way.

These are just some of the questions the annointment of Governor Sarah Palin brings to mind. What are yours?

Note: I’ll add additional questions, as they come up, here:

  1. Cindy McCain told ABC, in response to Governor Palin’s foreign policy credentials, “Alaska is the closest part of our continent to Russia.  So, it’s not as if she doesn’t understand what’s at stake here.” And it is true that in her 20 months as commander-in-chief of the Alaskan National Guard she has kept the Russian hordes in Siberia at bay. But is the GOP really reduced to spinning Alaska’s proximity to Russia as proof of Governor Palin’s foreign policy credentials? If so, how sad.
  2. What would be wrong with some straight talk by Senator McCain in which he admits she’s not qualified yet, but promises she will be soon? You have to admit it would be refreshingly honest.
  3. A staffer at Focus on the Family urged Christians to pray for rain last Thursday during Senator Obama’s acceptance speech in Denver (the organization later retracted and apologized for the message). Is Gustav’s intrusion on the Republican convention a divine message — or is it just one of those coincidences that shows God’s indifference to who wins — and if not, does it show God’s sense of humor?

Palin Selection Undermines McCain’s Campaign

Senator John McCain has been running a two track campaign for president: one is focused on issues like Iraq and off-shore oil drilling; the second attacks his Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama, for lacking the experience to hold the nation’s highest elected office. With the selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, Senator McCain has irrevocably undermined that second track as Senator McCain cannot credibly claim Governor Palin is qualified to be president without acknowledging that Senator Obama is, too.

Senator McCain and his political advisorsclearly view choosing Governor Palin as a running mate is a game changing move. It is. It makes Senator McCain’s election far more unlikely. After all, the best argument for choosing Governor Palin as his vice president is that of all the possible selections, she was further away from where Katrina made landfall than any of them.

OK, that’s a bit harsh. Turning to Sarah Palin makes a lot of sense on some levels. Back in February I wrote about the political wisdom of Senator McCain choosing a woman as his running mate. I listed several choices, including one of Alaska’s Senators, but neglected to mention the state’s governor, Sarah Palin. So, of course, that’s who Senator McCain picks as his running mate.

One of the comments to my post got it right though. Someone who signed the post as DGB wrote: “What about the most popular governor in the nation? What about a young energetic new face? What about a solid evangelical conservative? Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska, is a no brainer. It would be the smartest choice in years for a VP.”

And in many ways it is. Governor Palin satisfies the Republican party’s conservative wing. She’s anti-abortion, pro-capital punishment, against gay marriage, and, in her campaign, supported the teaching of creationism in Alaska’s schools. She also bolsters Senator McCain’s claim to being a reform-minded maverick. She defeated an incumbent GOP governor in 2006 and, once she took office, quickly passed a comprehensive ethics law. Prior to taking the Governor’s office she had gone after Republican officials for ethics violations resulting in their resignations. Her approval rating in Alaska hovers around 80 percent.

Add to all this the fact that she’s a mother of five children (the youngest of which has Down syndrome), is married to a part-Eskimo, is the former mayor of a small town and represents a new, younger generation of Republicans, and she is, as DGB said, a “no-brainer” as running mate.

However, she also undermines the Republicans strongest attack against Senator Barack Obama’scandidacy. In selecting Governor Palin, Senator McCain is proclaiming that, over everyone else in his party other than himself, she is most qualified to be President of the United States. Considering that Senator McCain, at 72, will be the oldest major party, non-incumbent nominee in history, this selection takes on even greater importance. Senator McCain is declaring Governor Palin is qualified to step in as president at any time. Yet consider:

  1. Senator McCain has said military service is an important criteria to be president and pointed out Senator Obama’slack of such service. Yet Governor Palin has never served in the military.
  2. Senator McCain’s claims Senator Obama lacks the experience to be president. They point out he’s only 47 years old and that the only elected offices he’s held was seven years in the Illinois State Legislature and three years in the United States Senate. Yet Governor Palin at 44 is even younger and her only elected offices was as city councilwoman (four years) and mayor (10 years) of Wasilla, Alaska (population less than 9,000) and less than two years as Alaska’s Governor.
  3. Senator McCain blasts his opponent for lacking experience in international affairs and on defense. Yet Senator Obama has served on the United State Senate’s Armed Services Committee for three years. Governor Palin has absolutely no international experience and her only defense experience stems from her position, as Alaska’s Governor, as being “comander in chief” of the state’s national guard unit.

Senator McCain can’t have it both ways. He can’t simultaneously claim Governor Palin is qualified to be President of the United States, but Senator Obama isn’t. He can’t claim Senator Obama lacks the experience to be president, without admitting Governor Palin doesn’t either. And if she is unqualified to be President of the United States, why did Senator McCain select her to be one heartbeat away from that position? Even if that heartbeat isn’t 72 years old, selecting a running mate someone unqualified assume the presidency is a disservice to the country that rises to the level of malpractice.

Governor Palin’s record is thinner than Senator Dan Quayle’s was in 1988 when then Vice President Bush selected him as a running mate — and they won that election. Yet in 1988, candidate Bush wasn’t facing the political challenge Senator McCain does. President Ronald Reagan may not have been as popular in 1996 as he is today, but his approval rating was far higher than is enjoyed by the current President George Bush. The economy was stronger and the country was safer in 1988 than it is 2008. The times call for a running mate with substance.

What makes this selection so politically pathetic is that, as I pointed out in that previous post, if his goal was to add a woman to the Republican ticket he had several choices. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, for example, has served in the United States Senate for 15 years, is part of the GOP leadership and is eight months younger than Senator Joe Biden. Senator McCain could have made history (the first woman on a Republican national ticket) and demonstrated his belief that experience matters. He didn’t.

In his acceptance speech, Senator Obama questioned Senator McCain’s foreign policy judgement. Senator McCain’s selection of Governor Palin to be Vice President brings into question the GOP candidate’s political judgement as well.

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.