Though the Democratic nomination has yet to be decided, Barack Obama and John McCain have begun acting very much as if the general election has already started, exchanging direct criticisms and sizing each other up. And, while neither has talked publicly about it at this early stage, both men are doubtless pondering the running-mate question.
In a matchup with Obama, McCain would face two potentially conflicting imperatives with his choice of a vice presidential candidate.
On the one hand, he badly needs to fire up an apathetic conservative base that even now has not warmed up to his candidacy. For a long time, he’d been assuming that Hillary Clinton—perhaps the most reviled figure among the conservative grass roots—would win the Democratic nomination and accomplish this for him. But if the vastly less polarizing Obama is his opponent, McCain may find his VP choice to be his best remaining means of mobilizing the G.O.P.’s base.
But picking a candidate with well-established conservative bona fides may not help McCain with his other imperative: the excitement factor. Obama’s candidacy has history-making potential, and the age difference between him and his presumptive general election opponent—25 years—would be the largest in history. The 72-year-old McCain would benefit from picking a younger, less conventional running mate who can appeal to the non-G.O.P. base voters who are instinctively attracted to Obama’s personality and to the future-versus-past theme of his campaign.
Meanwhile, conventional wisdom holds that Obama’s main criteria for picking a VP is to find someone with foreign policy heft, since most of Obama’s elected experience came in the Illinois state legislature. This would be particularly true against McCain, who will make Obama’s supposed foreign policy inexperience one of his main lines of attack.
Of course, Obama could thumb his nose at conventional wisdom, and pick a running mate whose foreign policy background—at least in the traditional sense—is just as thin as his, preferring instead to choose a VP who reinforces his emphasis on fresh thinking. Bill Clinton employed this logic in 1992 when he selected Al Gore, a fellow baby boomer who was from a Southern state that bordered Clinton’s Arkansas, when conventional wisdom suggested that he needed a graybeard from up north.
McCain will enjoy one slight advantage in the selection process: Since the G.O.P. convention comes after the Democrats’, he can wait for Obama (or Hillary Clinton) to make his pick before filling out his own ticket.
Here are a few names the candidates ought to consider, assuming, for the sake of this exercise, an Obama-McCain matchup:
Chuck Hagel: This has the benefit of being both an unconventional, outside-the-box pick and yet a safe one. A conservative Republican on many issues, Hagel is an outcast in the G.O.P. for his outspoken opposition to the foreign policy that his party has embraced under George W. Bush. This has also made him something of a hero to the left and a media favorite. In many ways, Hagel has emerged as the new McCain.
He’s giving up his Senate seat this year and, at 61 years old, is probably through running for office as a Republican. But he’s impeccably qualified for national office, has a commanding presence and grasp of military and national security issues and would vividly illustrate Obama’s declarations that his candidacy represents an effort to unite blue states and red states.
Jim Webb: Webb’s presence on the ticket would have roughly the same effect as Hagel’s, even if Webb is actually a Democrat (although he wasn’t for most of his life). Like Hagel, Webb is a man of conservative instincts who found himself alienated from the G.O.P. because of its embrace of Bush foreign policy. A military man, he has the same commanding presence as Hagel and would also bring ideological diversity to the Democratic ticket (for instance, on gun control). A bonus: He could help in Virginia, a state that will actually be in play this fall.
Joe Biden: Don’t laugh. Biden stuck his foot in his mouth talking about Obama last year, and it’s not at all clear Obama likes him on a personal level. But Biden is a weighty figure on foreign policy issues and a forceful speaker and debater (on points, he won most of the Democratic primary debates). By embracing him, Obama would be sending a signal to well-meaning white voters of a certain generation that he understands if they—like Biden—haven’t fully figured out how to talk about race. I know you don’t mean any harm, Obama would be telling them, and I want you on my team.
Claire McCaskill: A counterintuitive pick, given that she has less foreign policy experience than Obama. But if Obama wants his ticket to serve as a statement that “stale” Washington thinking has no place in his campaign, then he could do worse than to tap a second-year female senator who has made combating wasteful Defense Department spending (a nice response to McCain’s anti-government waste crusade) one of her pet issues and who represents a prime swing state, Missouri. McCaskill might also help Obama mend fences with women who have been devoted to Hillary Clinton in the primaries.
Mike Huckabee: Huckabee is doing his level best to prove his usefulness to McCain, gobbling up primary votes from religious conservatives who stubbornly refuse to come around to McCain. Pick me and you can have them all, is Huckabee’s implicit message to McCain. Plus, McCain seems to hold Huckabee in genuinely high regard for the major assist Huckabee provided him in driving Mitt Romney out of the Republican race. Huckabee is a skilled speaker and debater who would probably perform well on the stump and in the VP debate in the fall. The problem: He’s been caricatured (many would say accurately) as a religious extremist and could turn off independent voters whose support McCain absolutely must win in order to defeat Obama.
Kay Bailey Hutchison: She may represent the best realistic balance between McCain’s need to mollify the base and to make a bold statement with his VP pick. Hutchison is not the most conservative member of the Senate, but she’s also far from being a moderate. She has slowly crept to the right on abortion through the years, and after once advertising herself as pro-choice has now adopted views on the subject that could probably pass for pro-life. She would probably be acceptable to most of the right. And her gender would mean that the Republicans would not be running a “white guys” ticket against Obama.
The biggest drawback: She may have some ethical baggage from a 1993 indictment that charged her with misusing Texas state employees to assist with her Senate campaign that year. In early 1994, the prosecutor (Ronnie Earle) decided not to proceed with the case after the judge declined to rule on the admissibility of key evidence.
The best thing she has going for her: If McCain wants to make a splash by picking a woman, he doesn’t have many realistic choices.
Mark Sanford/Tim Pawlenty/Rick Perry: Three somewhat interchangeable conservative Republican governors. Sanford (South Carolina), Pawlenty (Minnesota) and Perry (Texas) all represent safe picks who would do little to inspire the masses and counter the excitement factor of an Obama-led Democratic ticket, but who would sit well with the conservative base that McCain is now scrambling to unify.
Pawlenty, in particular, has had his eye on McCain’s number-two spot for a while. He endorsed the Arizonan last year and has staked out an immigration position in opposition to McCain’s—which could make him more attractive to McCain, since he needs to reach out to conservatives who believe he has promoted “amnesty.”
David Petraeus: This is a very, very long shot. But there has been talk that Petraeus may be moving on from his role as the commander of international forces in Iraq later this year and McCain has been his biggest booster—publicly and behind the scenes in D.C.—since Petraeus took over in Iraq last year. And McCain has made his devotion to the surge and to Petraeus’ Iraq strategy central to his campaign. Petraeus has also been rumored to have political aspirations of his own. Needless to say, this would be a dramatic selection that could compensate for the excitement gap between McCain and an Obama-led Democratic ticket.
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