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!