When word leaked late last week that Barack Obama would be joined on his upcoming visit to Iraq by Chuck Hagel, it set off an understandable round of Hagel-for-V.P. speculation. But the actual prospects of the Nebraska Republican joining the Democratic ticket can be summed up simply: a bold and brilliant idea that has just about no chance of becoming reality.
In terms of Mr. Obama’s general election imperatives, the impact of Mr. Hagel’s addition to the ticket would be seismic – easily dwarfing the boost that any other potential ticket-mate (except Al Gore, if you place him in that category) might offer.
Start by simply considering the nature of the media coverage of such a unique bipartisan teaming. Typically, a presidential candidate’s announcement of his running-mate dominates the news for a few days, providing that candidate (and his running-mate) with a rare opportunity to mold mass opinion and to create impressions that will shape the public’s response to future campaign events. The interest from the press would be sustained and overwhelming.
More important, though, is what voters would see in the resulting saturation coverage. By choosing a Republican, Mr. Obama would be making an unmistakable statement that he’s serious about moving beyond traditional partisan divides. It would instantly obliterate John McCain’s charge that Mr. Obama is a doctrinaire liberal ideologue who – unlike Mr. McCain and his “straight talk” – has never displayed bipartisan instincts on consequential matters.
There would be audible protests from two somewhat overlapping groups on the left: liberal activists and interest group’s appalled by Mr. Hagel’s conservative voting record on Issue X, and former Hillary Clinton supporters, many of whom would fixate on Mr. Hagel’s pro-life stance. But the effect, even then, would be a net plus for Mr. Obama. The dissent from within his party would only endear Mr. Obama to independents, further discrediting the G.O.P.’s claim that he is a hostage of his party’s fringes. And with some skillful massaging, most of the liberal activists would eventually calm down, especially when they hear Mr. Hagel shred the Bush administration’s foreign policy at their convention.
Then there’s the cover that Mr. Hagel would provide on national security, Mr. Obama’s prime vulnerability against Mr. McCain. Even though polls show that voters reject many of the individual components of Mr. McCain’s foreign policy platform – like his undying support for the Iraq war – he continues to outpoll (significantly) Mr. Obama when those same voters are asked which candidate they are more comfortable with on various foreign policy and national security questions.
This seems wildly inconsistent, but actually it makes sense: Voters know and care little about the specifics of either candidate’s platform, but Mr. McCain – thanks to his age, war heroism, soldier’s swagger, and maverick’s reputation – “feels” safer than the youthful Mr. Obama, who’s just four years removed from the Illinois state Legislature.
Mr. Hagel could help neutralize this gross image disparity, and not simply because he’s a Vietnam veteran and war hero who’s won national reputation for breaking with his party and his president on the Iraq war (and the broader goals that have defined the Bush overseas doctrine). As we learned with John Kerry in 2004, a decorated veteran can seem less comforting to the masses on national security issues than a politician with a light military resume.
Mr. Hagel is no John Kerry. With his no-nonsense bearing and demeanor, he looks and sounds like a military man, while Mr. Kerry, with his urbane manner, doesn’t. The image of Chuck Hagel, Republican war hero, standing side-by-side with Mr. Obama would provide powerful emotional reassurance to the independent voters are most susceptible to the G.O.P.’s assault on Mr. Obama’s national security seasoning.
For all of these benefits, though, Mr. Hagel almost certainly won’t be the Democratic candidate for vice president. For one thing, he hasn’t even endorsed Mr. Obama yet, and he’s still friends with Mr. McCain (although their differences over the war have created some distance).
But the bigger reason is that the establishment forces in the Democratic Party – top elected officials and money men and women – are passionately opposed to the idea of their party placing a conservative Republican a heartbeat away from the presidency. Angry activists and interest groups are one thing, but a concerted effort by the party’s most influential behind-the-scenes forces to kill the Hagel idea would be quite something else.
Mr. Hagel may be the strongest potential V.P. candidate from an electoral standpoint, but Mr. Obama has other decent options. Most likely, he’ll opt for the path of least resistance.