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Legacy Content / OFF TO THE RACES

Right Choice

July 15, 2008

One of my least favorite parlor games being played these days is trying to guess who Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., will select to be their presidential running mates.

It is a pointless exercise, yet it is the hottest topic around. There are dozens of factors that must be taken into consideration, such as personal, political and ideological compatibility, and whether that person could deliver a state or demographic group, as if voters were like pizzas and could be delivered.

Some other factors could include acceptability among various factions in the party; whether the selection of a candidate makes some strategic statement; whether a running mate's selection helps correct for some shortcoming or weakness on the part of the presidential nominee, and etc. The list could go on forever.

 

But the simple fact is that a thousand different people in either McCain's or Obama's shoes would place different weight on the dozens of factors in a thousand different ways. It's a decent bet that no single adviser or even spouse of one of the two men has a true grasp of how the candidate views each of these factions, only some ideas and impressions that might or might not be right.

One thing that is absolutely true is that if anyone were really privy to the innermost thoughts that Obama or McCain have on this subject, they're surely keeping their mouths shut.

In the past, the smart campaigns have so compartmentalized the vice presidential selection process that many people saw individual pieces of the puzzle but only a few saw the entire thing. But even these few would not likely be able to see each of those pieces in precisely the same way the candidate does.

All of this is pretty pointless, and the more certain that folks around Washington and the political community are that they have figured out the pick, the more laughable it is.

Ronald Reagan's 1980 selection of George H. W. Bush was not a shocker, nor was Michael Dukakis' 1988 selection of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, nor the 2004 selection of Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. But none were foregone conclusions, either.

But the 1988 selection of Sen. Dan Quayle, R-Ind., was a total surprise, as was the 2000 selection of Dick Cheney.

Bill Clinton's 1992 pick of Tennessee Sen. Al Gore was a bit unusual -- similar age, adjacent states, similar ideology, no prior personal relationship -- and not many thought that Gore would choose Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., either.

For that matter, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro's selection by Walter Mondale in 1984 was a big surprise, too.

In short, the political community has a sorry track record of picking running mates. Sure, from time to time we all come across someone who claims to have predicted one of the surprises -- though rarely in writing or on tape -- and every once in a while those boasts might even be true.

But the larger point still stands that these things are very difficult to predict and it's fairly pointless to even try. What is legitimate is to ask, "If I were the nominee, my top choices would be X, Y or Z," putting aside any pretension of inside knowledge or superior analytical ability.

From this vantage point, Obama is, politically speaking, in a similar situation to which George W. Bush was in during 2000.

There were and are plenty of people who are leaning toward or open to supporting him but remain a bit unconvinced of his experience. Bush would not likely have won that race without Cheney, or at least someone with a great deal of experience voters would find a reassuring choice for a presidential nominee with a thinner than optimal resume.

There are a ton of names like Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., Joseph Biden, D-Del., Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., or former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., who each offer extensive experience. Adding in the post-partisan angle would open up selections such as Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska or Richard Lugar of Indiana.

My father turns 90 years old next month and has joked that at his age, he doesn't buy green bananas anymore.

The folly of a 71-year old nominee picking a green, relatively inexperienced running mate seems much more serious, particularly if that presidential nominee sells as his strong suit that national security credentials are his "raison d'etre" for the presidency.

In a very challenging national security environment, putting someone on McCain's ticket who only has experience heading the Florida or Minnesota National Guard would seem a stretch given McCain's rationale for the presidency.

To be sure, a case can be made that the whole "experience value" might be damaged these days -- that more voters are placing less value on experience this year than any time in the last half century. But that doesn't mean that it isn't important.

For what it's worth, my view this year is that a choice that looks overtly political, a crude attempt to curry favor with the voters of one state or demographic group would be seen as just that, political, and that is not good in this environment.

This is a time when picking someone enormously qualified for the job is the primary factor. Picking someone who might be of some help in securing 270 electoral votes is secondary, but still of significant concern. That is, in fact, the right politics.

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