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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Final, Definitive Obama Veep Analysis

Michael Duffy’s generally solid Time piece on Barack Obama’s “dilemma” in choosing a running-mate used half a blackjack metaphor, suggesting that he had to decide between “doubling-down” and “compensating.” As an occasional blackjack player, I’d say the second option is to “buy insurance”–choose a running-mate who could help reduce a potential McCain “blackjack” hand based on Obama’s lack of experience, especially in foreign policy.
This stylistic quibble aside, Duffy’s got the basic question right:

Does Obama counterbalance his relative inexperience in general, and in foreign policy and defense matters in particular, and go with a trusted old-timer or pick a fresh face, someone who can pose as an agent of change, a relative newcomer just like himself?

Outside the Obama campaign itself, which has (maybe deliberately) dropped a lot of contradictory hints on this question, the choice between reinforcing or complementing Obama’s appeal often breaks down on ideological and generational lines. Netroots folk, in particular, who think of Obama’s candidacy as representing a “crashing of the gates” of both parties’ center-left-to-right “Washington Establishment” naturally think he should “double-down” by choosing another anti-Iraq-War outsider. Lots of Democratic veterans, mostly (but not exclusively) in the ideological “center,” worry endlessly about McCain’s ability to paint Obama as a recent state senator who has no business becoming commander-in-chief, and prefer a “reassuring” running-mate with more experience, particular on national security matters.
There are also arguments within arguments. Some progressive national security wonks agree that Obama has work to do to become credible as a commander-in-chief, but contend that he must do that by convincingly articulating his own foreign policy and national security vision. If he can do that, a “reassuring” running-mate is unnecessary; if he can’t, then putting Sam Nunn or Joe Biden or some general on the ticket won’t do much good, and could do harm on other fronts.
Many double-downers like Markos Moulitsas often cite the mold-breaking example of Bill Clinton’s choice of Al Gore in 1992 as the “reinforce the message” template Obama should follow. The analogy is accurate so far as Gore’s ideological, regional, and generational profile was concerned. But as Big Tent Democrat riposted to Markos, Gore, a congressional veteran with a strong defense background, also “compensated” for Clinton’s lack of Washington or foreign policy experience.
If Gore was actually a “two-fer,” or a compromise between the reinforcing and complenting functions, some see the same qualities, says Duffy, in Evan Bayh, a former two-term governor from a red state who’s also served for a while on the Senate intelligence and armed services committees.
But in case this doesn’t seem complicated enough, cutting across the “double-down” and “buy-insurance” debate are strong objections by Democratic factions to particular candidates with either profile. GLBT and feminist activists have major issues with “reinforcer” Tim Kaine and “complementer” Sam Nunn. Those who believe Obama’s running-mate must share his “right from the start” position on the Iraq War object to “reinforcer” Kaine, “complementer” Biden, and “two-fer” Bayh. And “reinforcer” Kathleen Sebelius would supposedly offend hard-core Hillary Clinton supporters who think it would be an insult to the former candidate if Obama chose a “less-qualified” woman.
In other words, there are no easy choices for Obama, as I argued some time ago in supporting the Unity Ticket concept, since an Obama-Clinton ticket would at least have the logic of healing primary wounds.
At this late date, insofar as Obama-Clinton is by most accounts not an option, there are really two questions that remain. Does Obama feel strongly about the choice between doubling-down and buying insurance? And is he willing to take some untimely intraparty flack for choosing someone who will cause serious heartburn among elements of his progressive base of support?
If the answer to the second question is “no,” then my final handicapping thought is that Sebelius is the “reinforcer,” and Biden the “complementer,” who are most likely to get the nod, with Bayh likely only if Obama insists on a “two-fer.” If Obama doesn’t mind making intraparty waves, then all bets are off, and Nunn, Kaine, and God knows who else, could be on the table.
Does that clear it all up for you, dear reader? No, I didn’t think so.

One comment on “A Final, Definitive Obama Veep Analysis

  1. John Manifold on

    The “presumptuous” theme and related smears argue strongly for the nomination of Joe Biden, who can hit back with more power and credibility than anyone in public life.
    Forget the supposed “gaffes.” Biden can mesmerize any in-person audience and bond with on-air audiences.


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