Wayne O’Leary

The Number Two

All that remains of what satirist Jon Stewart refers to as the endless Bataan death march to the Democratic National Convention is presidential nominee Barack Obama’s choice of a running mate. Like everything else in this overly analyzed and excruciatingly examined campaign, the vice-presidential pick has assumed an exaggerated importance beyond the office’s actual role in the governing process. That said, let’s analyze it some more.

John Nance Garner of Texas, FDR’s running mate in 1932 and 1936, once observed the vice presidency wasn’t worth “a bucket of warm spit.” That’s the sanitized version; “Cactus Jack” actually filled the bucket with another bodily fluid. Be that as it may, considerable thought will go into Obama’s selection. It will be, as is often said, the potential president’s first important decision and a window into his character.

The available choices are myriad, and the rationales for making the pick are equally extensive. The contending veep could be chosen for ideological, geographic, ethnic, religious, age or gender balance, or to fill a perceived hole in the presidential nominee’s resume: experience or knowledge in some specialized area, strength with some key group of voters, and the like. Alternatively, the individual chosen could be someone the chief nominee feels comfortable with, someone on his personal and philosophical wavelength. Then again, the pick could simply be someone likely to help the ticket carry a particular state necessary to win the Electoral College.

Some of the possible contenders are obvious. First, there’s 2004 vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, who, despite his expressed reluctance, deserves consideration for running a creditable, indeed inspirational, primary race early on and setting the party’s populist 2008 agenda. Edwards is an energetic and tireless campaigner with proven appeal to this year’s version of the soccer moms: the white, working-class voters. His downside is his relative inexperience, especially in foreign affairs, and lack of Washington connections. In that regard, the former North Carolina senator would reinforce Obama’s supposed experience problem, adding a negative to a negative. Perhaps most important, Edwards, a potential cabinet star as, say, attorney general, labor secretary, or head of Health and Human Services, could be wasted in the vice presidency, where his advocacy talents and legal abilities would have less opportunity to flourish.

Then, there’s Hillary Clinton, the old hard-working white girl herself. She is the other half of the so-called Democratic dream ticket, and some of her followers are virtually demanding the V.P. nod as the price of unity and peace in the party. There is an implied blackmail threat here: pick Hillary or else. Obama cannot accede to this, of course, without looking weak, and the dream ticket would, in some ways, be a nightmare ticket.

The Clintons—and Obama would have to take both Hillary and Bill—would bring along their famous baggage, including the legacy of the 1990s, good aspects and bad (mostly bad, I would argue). Furthermore, once on the ticket it is assured they would not be content playing second fiddle; we would see the former first couple trying to run the country from the vice president’s office, undercutting the actual chief executive left and right.

The truth is the Clintons regard Obama with thinly veiled contempt; he’s the unqualified interloper who, they feel, took the nomination to which they were rightly entitled. Hillary’s negative campaign following the February primary contests, in which she mocked, taunted, baited, and disparaged Obama at every turn, showed the depths of the Clintons’ disrespect for the eventual winner. He was, they said or implied, too liberal, too soft on defense, too naïve on foreign policy, too intellectual, too elitist—all the charges right-wing Republicans routinely make against Democrats in a general election.

Obama would be foolish to pick Clinton, although forces in the party and the media are trying to pressure him into that very decision. It would cost him, among other things, the crucial independent vote. He would be seen as rewarding the “old politics” he ran against, a potentially fatal mistake. The same would be true if the nominee chose, as has been suggested, a high-profile Clinton supporter in lieu of Hillary herself—an Evan Bayh, an Ed Rendell, a Diane Feinstein. On the other hand, choosing a prominent Obama-ite, such as Bill Richardson, might be tantamount to waving a red flag in front of a bull, the bull in this case being the Clinton camp.

There’s a third option, which is to find a running mate not overtly aligned or identified with either of the two lately contending Democratic campaigns, someone whose anointing would not alienate any forces in the party, a popular figure possessing few obvious negatives and a raft of positives. There is such a person out there: Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware.

Biden is a committed progressive and a forceful, persuasive campaigner. He won his share of the early primary debates and drew the admiration of rank and file Democrats with his policy knowledge, occasional eloquence, and folksy ease and charm on the stump. He balances Obama by virtue of his religion (Catholic), ethnicity (Irish), region (eastern Mid-Atlantic), and experience (three decades in Washington and a few desirable gray hairs). Add to this the fact that Biden is the Democrats’ resident foreign-policy expert among elected officials, and you have to ask, what’s not to like?

Biden does have one drawback: He voted for the Iraq war resolution. But so did Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Chris Dodd, and others. Moreover, unlike Clinton, Biden has pointedly disavowed his initial war support to become a vociferous Bush critic on the Middle East and one with a well-defined Iraq withdrawal strategy. The Delaware senator brings other strengths. A longstanding ally of labor, he’s beloved by union members and at home with those white, working-class Democrats slow to warm to Obama. In contrast to Hillary, an ersatz populist, Biden’s sympathetic connection with ethnic blue-collar workers is in his bones and upbringing, and not a campaign contrivance created for the Appalachian primaries. Finally, Biden would help carry not just his tiny home state of Delaware, but neighboring New Jersey and Pennsylvania as well.

From Barack Obama’s standpoint, a Biden selection is the perfect answer to his vice-presidential quandary. It gives him a highly qualified political partner with Clinton’s purported big-state appeal who is not Clinton. That’s a real dream ticket.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2008

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