The running mate litmus test


The liberal Democratic base is already feeling edgy about Barack Obama's various centrist moves, but the big test is yet to come. Will he choose a running mate who amplifies and underscores his message of change (thereby triggering exhalations of relief within the base) - or will he pick somebody for the sake of "balance," who appears to contradict his message of change (thereby triggering cries of betrayal, and even some vows to sit out the November election)?

In recent days, it's been clear that the base is on the case. After Obama appeared publicly this week with Evan Bayh, the U.S. senator who has won several landslides in red-state Indiana, the word went out that Bayh's closet skeletons render him unacceptable as a fellow change agent. The problem, apparently, is Iraq. He voted for war authorization in 2002. Worse yet, in February of 2003, while President Bush and minions were in the home stretch of dragging America into war, Bayh signed up as honorary co-chairman of a group called The Committee for the Liberation Iraq, thus sharing membership with two of his hawkish colleagues, Joe Lieberman and...John McCain.

Apparently, some time between 2003 and 2005, Bayh's name vanished from the group's masthead, but that's probably not enough to assuage the liberal base. He has never renounced his war vote, and his subsequent attacks on President Bush's execution of the war ("not enough troops, no plan for the aftermath," as I heard him say at an '06 fundraiser) haven't sounded all that different from the criticisms voiced by McCain.

On the other hand, Bayh arguably could help Obama expand the '08 political map. Even if it's a stretch to think that he can put Indiana in play, he does knows how to talk to red-state voters, and that could benefit Obama elsewhere. That's what "balance" can potentially bring to a ticket; the risk is that the base will assail Obama as too much the traditional politician for deciding that way.

The same is true for Sam Nunn, the former senator (and national security expert) from red-state Georgia. He too appeared with Obama this week, parrying all questions about his availability as a running mate. Obama is clearly interested in contesting Georgia, which has a large black population, and also is home to third-party Libertarian candidate Bob Barr, who might bleed some conservative votes away from McCain. Nunn, at least on paper, might aid Obama's efforts to put Georgia in play. The problem for many Obama fans, however, is that Nunn hardly seems like the kind of guy who should co-helm a grassroots political movement. For one thing, he sits on a lot of corporate boards, and liberal activists are reflexively wary of big corporations. And in general, as blogger/activist Chris Bowers wrote recently, "Putting a 70-year old, white, southern, corporate dude on the ticket would almost entirely wipe away any notion that Obama is a 'change' candidate."

For "change" candidates, there are two basic templates: John F. Kennedy went for balance in 1960, and picked Lyndon Johnson; furious liberals complained that choosing the Senate wheeler-dealer undercut the promise of the New Frontier. But 32 years later Bill Clinton chose to amplify his change message by picking a young fellow southerner, Al Gore. I'll leave it to the historians to debate whether Kennedy or Clinton would have won their races if they had embraced the opposite templates. The point is, Obama could go either way in the interests of winning.

I tend to think that a running-mate deemed unacceptable by the base will not ultimately damage Obama's prospects, if only because anger over a veep choice tends to dissipate quickly in the heat of late summer. Nevertheless, Obama's decision may well open a valuable window on how he thinks, on how he weighs idealism against pragmatism.


And speaking of pragmatism, here's one more thought on the New Yorker cover flap:

All the public attention is being paid to the cartoon, and its caricature of Obama as an anti-establishment revolutionary. Virtually no public attention is being paid to the article that actually appears inside the magazine, a lengthy profile of Obama during his days as a fast-rising Chicago politician. At one point, Ryan Lizza writes this:

"Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them. When he was a community organizer, he channelled his work through Chicago’s churches, because they were the main bases of power on the South Side. He was an agnostic when he started, and the work led him to become a practicing Christian. At Harvard, he won the presidency of the Law Review by appealing to the conservatives on the selection panel. In Springfield (Illinois), rather than challenge the Old Guard Democratic leaders, Obama built a mutually beneficial relationship with them...In his downtime, he played poker with lobbyists and Republican lawmakers. In Washington, he has been a cautious senator and, when he arrived, made a point of not defining himself as an opponent of the Iraq war...He campaigns on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game. He is ideologically a man of the left, but at times he has been genuinely deferential to core philosophical insights of the right."

The millions of willfully ignorant Americans who are spooked by the notion of Obama-as-radical would probably feel better about the guy if they knew all that. But they're not likely to, not in a culture where the power of an image typically trumps the written word. Tragically so.