Heilemann on Obama’s V.P. Conundrum

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Who will be Barack Obama’s V.P. pick? With the Democratic primaries now blessedly in our rearview mirror and the party’s convention still two months away, the short-list season is upon us, a time of rampant speculation and multitudinous proffers of advice, solicited and not, to the nominee and his people regarding potential running mates. But until last week, because of the Obama team's consistent adherence to a kind of political Taoism — it was Lao Tzu, the father of that creed, who coined the timeless aperçu, “Those who know, don’t speak; those who speak, don’t know” — the nominee’s thinking about the veepstakes has been entirely opaque.

That changed last week, though not a whole lot, when Obama’s campaign chief, David Plouffe, gave a 90-minute presentation followed by a press briefing at Democratic National Committee HQ in Washington. Asked if the ability to help carry a state was among the criteria his boss would employ in selecting a No. 2, Plouffe replied, “I don’t think that’s going be a factor.” He added that Obama’s pick would be “qualified to be president and someone who’ll be a partner in governing,” citing both Dick Cheney and Al Gore as running mates with no electoral-map impact (Bill Clinton would’ve won Tennessee anyway in 1992, Plouffe argued; ditto for George W. Bush and Wyoming in 2000) that still worked to the nominees’ advantage more broadly.

Plouffe’s answer, by design, made the big choice facing Obama seem simple — but, of course, it’s not. In fact, the degree of difficulty inherent in the decision is unusually, confoundingly high. On the one hand, nobody in Obama’s inner circle disputes the notion that opting for a V.P. with major foreign-policy/national-security chops would be extremely desirable given the nominee’s lack of experience in that area. On the other, everyone agrees that Obama’s sidekick should reinforce his brand as an agent of change. This is not an easy circle to square: Where exactly does one find a running mate untainted by Old Politics, an outsider who represents a clean break with the past and embodies transformative potential, but who also happens to be (to borrow a phrase) ready from day one to be commander-in-chief?

And that’s just the first conundrum confronting Obama. A panoply of additional complications are raised by the particular voting blocs with whom he did poorly in the primaries but that he badly needs in the general election (older women, working-class whites, Hispanics, Catholics, and Jews — the Hillary Clinton coalition), by his youth (which works both against him and in his favor) and his race. Then factor in the litmus tests imposed by various Democratic constituencies and it quickly becomes clear just how hard it will be for the hopemonger to make an obviously, unambiguously “right” choice — one greeted by universal acclaim in the Democratic ranks, that is.

To illustrate, let’s consider three potential picks, all names that have been both highly touted by the Great Mentioner and are, I’m told, getting a serious look in Chicago:

1. Kathleen Sebelius. Sebelius is the 60-year-old governor of Kansas and one of Obama’s most voluble and visible endorsers, a fresh-faced, popular, pragmatic chief executive of a red state with a terrific record on issues affecting blue-collar workers. What’s not to like?

More than a few things, says a source of mine, a savvy operative with ties to organized labor. “She’s a terrible public speaker with no sense of her crowd and how to connect with it,” this person e-mailed me after seeing Sebelius speak last month at the Teamsters Unity Conference in Las Vegas. “And I can't imagine how anybody would mistake her for Hillary Clinton just because they are both women. Seems to me a lot of Hillary supporters might actually be irritated with Obama for picking Sebelius, think he was patronizing them by selecting any old damn woman, rather than the specific woman they actually admire.” And then my source offered this: “She's a bit older than Obama, but not old enough to be maternal. And she is quite attractive. They'd look too much like a couple together. [Putting her on the ticket] would risk evoking on a subconscious level every American trope about miscegenation — a recurrent, threatening theme throughout our cultural and political history. Every time they smile at each other, it will be triggered … And that's exactly the kind of anxiety you do not want to raise in white working-class men — the fear that this handsome, charismatic black guy is after their women.”

The latter part of this analysis is certainly incendiary, but it’s far from crazy. There are those who believe, and not implausibly, that it was precisely the fear of miscegenation that Karl Rove was stoking when he referred to Obama recently as “the guy at the country club” (a typically all-white venue) “with the beautiful date” (not “Michelle” or “his wife”) “holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.” And even beyond that, it’s hard to quibble with the fact that although Sebelius — like Arizona governor Janet Napolitano or Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell — has executive experience, it’s hardly a slam-dunk case that she’s qualified to tote the nuclear football.

2. Joe Biden. The senior senator from Delaware and two-time White House aspirant is probably the best foreign-policy mind in the Democratic Party. He’s also a shot-and-a-beer kinda guy who plays well with working-class voters, a tireless and experienced campaigner capable of rousing the base (“He can give a great red-meat union speech,” says my labor-connected pal) and a Catholic to boot. And Obama genuinely likes him, no small thing in any veepstakes.

Now, Biden has always suffered from his tendency to run off at the piehole. (Though when it comes to foot-in-mouth disease, he barely holds a candle to Bill Richardson.) His forthright admission the other day on Meet the Press that he would say yes if Obama asked him to be veep was seen as perhaps a bit too eager by some in Obamaland. But the deeper problem with him is that he reeks of the Senate, the Beltway, the entire culture that Obama has promised to transform. And while no one would be a better foil for John McCain on the question of Iraq, the fact that Biden voted to authorize the war in 2002 makes him impure in the eyes of some Democratic ultradoves — a group that happens to include some of Obama’s most ardent fans.

In all of this, Biden — like fellow senators Chris Dodd and John Kerry, and former senators Tom Daschle and, God help us, Sam Nunn — presents the opposite problem of the Sebelius dilemma. It requires a nearly hallucinatory degree of mental gymnastics to argue that they represent the change we’ve been waiting for.

3. Chuck Hagel. No less a figure than Obama-supporting John Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorenson has urged the nominee to consider the Nebraska senator. And Hagel clearly offers an ingenious way out of the bind that Obama has built for himself. He has enormous cred on national security while at the same time being loudly antiwar. And because of his status as a member of the GOP, Hagel as V.P. would be a vivid symbol of Obama’s stated desire to reach across the aisle for the sake of national unity, the word made flesh with respect to the nominee’s post-partisan positioning.

But positioning is one thing. Governing is another. And Hagel really is a Republican. An interesting, principled, non-doctrinaire Republican, but a Republican all the same — a bona fide conservative, even. (His positions on social and economic issues are almost identical to Bush’s.) Choosing him would surely send a powerful message, but it’s one that few Democrats want to hear: that there’s no one in their party whom Obama considered equally or more worthy. The prospect of a Republican a heartbeat away from the Oval Office would cause the kind of en masse conniption at Denver Democratic convention that no sane standard-bearer would ever want to subject himself to.

These three are only meant to be representative examples. Other possibilities abound. But it’s hard to think of anyone who would fit the change-AND-experience bill that Obama is trying to fill — except, that is, for a certain lady in a pantsuit. Hillary Clinton, of course, has plenty of baggage. And she is nobody’s idea of an outsider. But given her gender, it wouldn’t take much doing message-wise to frame her as an emblem of change. And even her critics acknowledge that her cojones are more than capacious enough to qualify her as commander-in-chief. (There is no Democrat more admired by the top military brass.) The smart set tells us that Clinton is ruled out by her husband; in particular, by his unwillingness to divulge certain details about his business dealings and to reveal the list of donors to his presidential library. And in general by the bitterness he apparently continues to nurse toward Obama (cf the remark of Clinton's reported over the weekend that Obama can "kiss my ass" in return for his support.)

Yet if WJC were to stop behaving like a petulant adolescent and muster up a change of heart — an enormous "if," I'm well aware, but doesn't he owe HRC that much? — the case for Hillary would be nearly watertight. Unity. Brand equity. A fighter’s mettle. An ass-kicking ability as a debater. What more could you ask for in a veep? It’s a question that, I bet, will be plaguing Obama in the days and weeks to come. —John Heilemann

Related: Obama's Potential Running Mates: A Who's Who
McCain's Potential Running Mates: A Who's Who

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.