Veepstakes: I’ll Guess Sebelius

For the longest time, I've suspected that Obama's top choice for Vice-President was Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.

There is no perfect choice. This one is as good as most of them, and better than many.

Why Sebelius? Looking at at it from Team Obama's point of view, there are a number of things they might want to have in a veep, and there are also some showstoppers. Please note that what follows is more my attempt to imagine what Team Obama is thinking rather to to give my own views:

Let's start with the nakedly political considerations.

  • Someone who could carry a key state is always valuable. As the nation gets less and less Balkanized, there are fewer and fewer such people. Arguably none exist this year, at least as regards large states; the possibility that Virginia, which like Texas and a few others still has greater-than-average sense of itself as a state, might be subject to such blandishments is undoubtedly why Tim Kaine's name gets mooted about.
  • There are some areas where a veep might be used to plug what others claim are holes in the Obama resume.
    • Military/national security. Since this was likely McCain's strength, I thought that Team Obama might think Wesley Clark was the perfect veep (General, popular in the heartland, was part of the Clinton wing). But given that Obama didn't back Clark when the GOP took their knives to him, I think we have to assume he's not on the menu.
    • Executive experience — Obama has never run a large organization. Senators are not usually smart enough to see this as a problem, but this is a smart Senator.

    Notably absent from this list are the areas where I think Team Obama will believe, rightly, that it does not need help:

    • Foreign policy — Obama, with a worldview shaped by living abroad and not having his head stuck in the sand for the last two decades, has a clearly worked out vision of what he wants his foreign policy to be like. He doesn't need another wheel here. And there are no votes in it anyway. Not to mention that the success of his most recent trip will have put paid to any thoughts of a deficit in this department.
    • Legislative experience — Every Senator thinks he understands the Congress. It's highly unlikely that Obama will feel it a priority to have a deputy to make nice to Senators. Better to leave any such friends in place.
  • Perhaps more importantly, a veep pick can serve as reassurance to constituencies that are not yet sure if they are comfortable with Obama. But it's important to have a hard-edged understanding of who those groups are. Polls show that women and Hispanics, for example, are well on the way to coming home to the Democratic party. The group most likely to need this sort of reassurance are what one might only slightly euphemistically call tribal whites. These groups are not racists — Obama isn't going to get the racist vote, which is why South Carolina is out reach — but they don't as yet feel they know Obama, and a black man will have to work hard to make the sale. McCain looks familiar and (maybe) safe. Obama isn't as safe. Is he scary?

Then there are what one might call the personal considerations.

  • Veeps traditionally are the attack dogs. Ability to fill that role is a plus. Interestingly, however, almost none of the names mooted by the Obama people are particularly strong in this department.

  • There has to be some sort of personal chemistry, or at least rapport. No snakes in the grass.
  • The veep must not be someone (or married to someone) who might upstage the candidate.
  • I'm guessing here, but I imagine that just as Team Obama has been admirably leak-proof and lacking in (visible) drama, so too will there be a strong preference for a candidate with a lower-key personal style. Candidate must know how to keep his/her mouth shut.

Pluses of Sebelius

  • Sebelius offers Obama something that no other candidate does: a chance to remind voters over and over again of his Kansas roots. For those voters who may, consciously or not, be concerned about Obama's half blackness, Kansas is the trope for his half whiteness.
  • Plus, she's made serious inroads into the Kansas GOP, inducing her now-Lieutenant Governor to switch parties. This fits the bi-partisan narrative that the beltway pundits so claim to love, and the post-partisan narrative that Obama sometimes slides into.
  • Sebelius has a genuinely strong record as a governor, removing a huge deficit, and making things work.
  • She was an early (enough) Obama endorser.
  • Reportedly, she's nice. (Can she attack? I don't know.)
  • Sebelius doesn't offend many key Democratic constituencies or single-issue groups. Although she is Catholic and opposed to abortion, she is also opposed to criminalizing it. She's pro-environment, not a great fan of gun control, opposes capital punishment. Her worst issue from the point of view of the base may be GLBT rights: although she opposed a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, she supported a state law banning it. Obama's position in the issue is probably strong enough to reduce the negative effect of this position. No gay rights single-issue voter will defect to McCain, and few will stay home or close their checkbooks.

Minuses of Sebelius, in increasing order of severity:

  • From a small, hard to carry, state.
  • Doesn't tick the national security box, but at least there's the executive experience box, and anyway more and more this looks like a paycheck election.
  • May anger the Clintons to have to support another woman. But they'll probably suck it up for the good of the nation.
  • Is she really ready to be President?
  • Will her femaleness overwhelm her whiteness from the point of view of (mostly white) voters who, while not so racist as to be unreachable, are nonetheless not instinctively comfortable with the idea of voting for a black man as President? In other words, are these voters any less sexist than they are tribal?

Finally, I think the fact that we are hearing so much about other names actually supports the Sebelius theory. Those are a combination of distractions to heighten the surprise factor and get bigger headlines, plus a savvy implementation of the traditional tactic of giving important party members their moment in the sun.

I'm a law professor, not a pundit. I just thought it might be fun to make a guess publicly. Let the other guesses (and brickbats) fly!

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15 Responses to Veepstakes: I’ll Guess Sebelius

  1. Adam says:

    Sibelius was on top of my list for a while, but after watching the Obama vs. Clinton battle sink deeper and deeper into hate filled invective, and the media fawning over the possibility of an Obama/Clinton ticket, it is hard to imagine even moderate Clinton supporters would take well to Sibelius, which would be seen as both a failed pander and a betrayal. Also, her sort of lackluster public speeches seem a bit hedged to rev up the Obama base who are going to go out and knock on doors.

    My vote, if I had to take one, at this point, would be Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. He has the sort of straightforward honesty coupled with intelligence that allowed him to win a red state as a Democrat. He’s lived in saudi arabia, and he has very progressive views that he seems to be able to put forward in a win-win framing, much like Obama.

  2. Mr. X says:

    Schweitzer seems like a decent prospect too, though I suspect his relatively short time in elected politics will serve as a deterrent (he has four years under his belt, Sebelius has over 20 at various levels of state politics), given how much everyone goes on about Obama’s supposed need to compensate for “inexperience”.

    The ostensible reasons for most of the vitriol directed at Sebelius on these blogs by Clinton supporters doesn’t make much sense. Selecting one of Time Magazine’s “Top Five Governors in America” is an underqualified choice, insulting to women? Give me a break. This is just the argument for public consumption. The only sensible reason is that this is a pre-emptive strike against a credible female candidate who could challenge Sen. Clinton for the presidential nomination eight years from now. The last thing her campaign wants is another woman to gain a national platform bewtween now and 2016. If that were to happen, Clinton would face serious competition for the “women’s vote”, eroding her core support base to the point where it would be almost impossible for her to win. While Sebelius’ selection will probably upset hard-core Clintonites, it’s hard to imagine most voters, women included, feeling “betrayed” about it.

  3. LACJ says:

    I hope you are wrong, Michael. I do not see how she helps the ticket at all. No offense meant, but I would worry that he is harming his chances if he were to pick her.

  4. Go Democrats says:

    Remember that Kerry picked Edwards who came from North Carolina. North Carolina had no shot at ever going Democrat, and Edwards brought very little to the table to help Kerry. In fact, Kerry/Edwards failed to carry even one southern state. At the same time, Sibelius comes from Kansas which has no hope of going Democrat for the election, so I would be hard pressed to think she would bring much to the table either. I don’t think people in Virginia care as much about a red state Democratic governor going to the Oval office as VP, as much as they would rather see their own Governor go to the White House.

    Obama needs to bring someone who can help a red state turn blue and at this point, his best bet is Kaine from Virginia (only because Webb opted out, otherwise Webb is the best choice).

    Otherwise he must pick Clinton because she can raise an obscene amount of money with Obama for the general election.

    It is not as important for Obama to fill in the gaps that McCain is hitting him on (i.e. soft on terrorism and bad commander in chief for Iraq). McCain will hit him on that anyway regardless. Obama’s best bet is to just scratch the surface enough of an electorally rich red state to turn blue, regardless of the reason why.

  5. Go Democrats says:

    Remember that Kerry picked Edwards who came from North Carolina. North Carolina had no shot at ever going Democrat, and Edwards brought very little to the table to help Kerry. In fact, Kerry/Edwards failed to carry even one southern state. At the same time, Sibelius comes from Kansas which has no hope of going Democrat for the election, so I would be hard pressed to think she would bring much to the table either. I don’t think people in Virginia care as much about a red state Democratic governor going to the Oval office as VP, as much as they would rather see their own Governor go to the White House.

    Obama needs to bring someone who can help a red state turn blue and at this point, his best bet is Kaine from Virginia (only because Webb opted out, otherwise Webb is the best choice).

    Otherwise he must pick Clinton because she can raise an obscene amount of money with Obama for the general election.

    It is not as important for Obama to fill in the gaps that McCain is hitting him on (i.e. soft on terrorism and bad commander in chief for Iraq). McCain will hit him on that anyway regardless. Obama’s best bet is to just scratch the surface enough of an electorally rich red state to turn blue, regardless of the reason why.

  6. michael says:

    Clinton brings $25 million + in debt. That’s not helpful.

    Kaine is not well known to me, but these guys — who started a web site to support him 3 years ago — seem quite sour on him: see Raising Kaine, We Won’t Get ‘Kained’ Again.

  7. Go Democrats says:

    Michael,

    As I have always said to you in the past, it baffles me how you got this far in life. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE TURN OFF FOX NEWS!!! Everytime you speak, you show how little you know about politics.

    Clinton does not bring $25 million in debt to Obama. She has $25 million in debt from the primaries, she has a $22 million surplus for the general election. Clinton cannot carry over her debt from primaries to the general election. Her debt is her problem, not Obama’s. Not the mention the hundreds of millions that she can raise on her own between September and October if she is selected as VP.

    As for Kaine, perhaps you are unaware that Kaine has a 67% approval rating in Virginia. It is irrelevant how he is viewed anywhere else in the world, except Virginia. Obviously you are unaware of this so I will state the obvious… Virginia voters only can vote in the state of Virginia and they only effect the electoral votes of the state of Virginia. All Obama needs to do is scratch the surface enough in Virginia (i.e. by choosing Kaine as his running mate), enough to put Virginia in the Democratic column. IT DOES NOT MATTER IF EVERYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD THEY USE KAINE’S FACE ON A DARTBOARD, OR THEY HAVE HIS IMAGE PRINTED ON TOILET PAPER!! IT IS COMPLETELY, TOTALLY, AND UTTERLY IRRELEVANT!!!

    I really don’t know what it is that you don’t understand. Perhaps you have a political mental block? Perhaps it is better for you to just stay out of politics and just become another ignorant swing voter who just votes depending on how many more times they see a negative ad of one candidate over the other.

  8. Drew says:

    Is there any actual proof that picking Sebelius would offend former Clinton supporters? It seems like that is just a talking point cable news pundits have pulled out of their asses with no basis in reality. I’m a Sebelius for VP supporter solely because her record as Kansas governor is stellar in my opinion and I feel as if she is a competent executive. She’s run a state and balanced it’s budget, something Obama has never done himself. She adds a lot to the overall governing ability of an Obama administration which is the most important factor to consider in picking a VP in my humble opinion.

  9. Drew says:

    Is there any actual proof that picking Sebelius would offend former Clinton supporters? It seems like that is just a talking point cable news pundits have pulled out of their asses with no basis in reality. I’m a Sebelius for VP supporter solely because her record as Kansas governor is stellar in my opinion and I feel as if she is a competent executive. She’s run a state and balanced it’s budget, something Obama has never done himself. She adds a lot to the overall governing ability of an Obama administration which is the most important factor to consider in picking a VP in my humble opinion.

  10. michael says:

    I’m told Kaine’s high poll numbers predate the recent messy special session of the legislature. But again, I am not well-versed in VA politics.

    Clinton’s primary debt may not be a legal obligation for the Obama campaign were she to join it, but it would be a political and moral necessity to pay it off. Which could be hard.

    Given Mr. D’s support for these two people — and his long-time status as a disgruntled former student (I know who you are) and posting style as right-wing knee-jerk — it should be quite obvious why a real Democrat would worry about both….

  11. Go Democrats says:

    LOL a disgruntled former student? Why is that not an insult coming from a guy who can’t sleep and posts at 3:17 a.m.?

    Well anyway it’s obvious you don’t know who I am if you think I am a former student of yours. And it is equally obvious that you watched Fox News last night before your 3:17 a.m. posting.

    Either way, Obama/Clinton and Obama/Kaine are winning tickets… a slight longshot but possible ticket could be Obama/Corzine (only because Corzine is willing to donate millions to his own campaign… he donated almost 70 million for his Senate election in 2000, and can enhance Obama’s message that he is not a typical politician). The only problem with Corzine is that he is very very liberal and does not represent any southern interests… but then again that is a similar issue with Clinton.

  12. michael says:

    3:17am? Sorry to disappoint, but the blog keeps US time even when I’m abroad. And as far as I know I’ve never watched Fox News. For most of my adult life I have lived in a home without a TV; we got our first one earlier this year, mostly to watch DVDs. We don’t as yet have cable or satellite although we’re thinking about it.

  13. Adam says:

    There is certainly no “actual proof” that Sebelius would offend the die hard Clinton supporters, but that is the vibe I get from perusing websites such as hillaryis44.com. Of course, there’s no way to win these friendly people back, at this point. Even if Obama made Clinton his VP it would be seen as demeaning and they would still vote for McCain.

    It’s possible that Tim Kaine would give Obama an advantage in VA, which–as the numbers stand right now–would be a big boon. But it’s also that McCain may pick a VP that gives him an edge nationwide, and that Obama needs help in other states than VA. I really like Brian Schweitzer, the more I see of him, especially compared to Kaine and Sebelius, who are both acceptable, but neither one is going to shine for Obama’s campaign other than in their home states.

  14. Go Democrats says:

    I am starting to think that Obama/Bayh is the best ticket. Ironically, since the fall of Carter to Reagan, every administration since then has had a President or Vice President with only one syllable in the name.

    1. Reagan/Bush
    2. Bush/Quale
    3. Clinton/Gore
    4. Bush/Cheney
    5. Obama/Bayh

    Not to mention that if you go to the website http://www.obamabayh08.com website, it automatically sends you to the Democrat homepage!! Is that a hint? Perhaps Obama has already chosen his candidate and has set up the web address for his administration! It sure makes for great gossip!

  15. Josh says:

    I’ve been thinking that it will be Sebelius for a while now.

    She fits everything Obama has said about the VP position. Most notably about the VP not having to carry a state.

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