Conventional wisdom can be and often is wrong, especially when it comes to running-mate speculation.
Maybe you can remember back to 1992, when just about every wise man and woman opined on the supposed importance of Bill Clinton, then a 45-year-old Southern governor, balancing his ticket with a gray-haired Northerner. Clinton, of course, ignored them and picked an even more youthful Tennessean named Al Gore, forming a visually powerful partnership that netted 370 electoral votes and made an utter mockery of conventional wisdom.
But there are times when, just like the proverbial broken clock, conventional wisdom actually gets it right. Case in point: the widely repeated view that Barack Obama needs to compensate for his perceived national security and foreign policy inexperience by selecting a running mate with reassuringly impeccable credentials in those areas. There is more than a little something to this idea.
Seventy-two percent of voters in an ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Tuesday said that John McCain would make a good commander in chief. Only 48 percent said the same thing about Obama.
It’s certainly possible for Obama to chip away at it by building confidence with the public over the next four months. But it demonstrates a potentially devastating perception problem for him: Too many voters have trouble instinctively conceiving of him as the commander in chief. Many of these same voters undoubtedly have a favorable impression of Obama personally and are probably inclined to vote Democratic this fall, given the mass appetite for change that typically emerges when so many domestic and international problems amass on one party’s watch. But Obama’s youth and recent arrival on the national stage, especially when compared with McCain, gives them pause.
Clinton, at this juncture in ’92, faced the same basic doubts. He was a young man with no meaningful foreign policy experience (or military service, for that matter) running against a 68-year-old World War II hero who had led the country to triumph in the first Gulf War; hence the conventional wisdom that Clinton needed a Wise Old Man running-mate.
But the situation in ’92 was different in one critical way: foreign policy and national security had, with the end of the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, vanished from voters’ minds. To the public, the ’92 campaign was exclusively about the (seemingly) stalled domestic economy. Clinton correctly calculated that he’d pay no price with the public if his ticket didn’t measure up on foreign policy.
Obama doesn’t have the same luxury. The economy may have usurped Iraq as the top issue in polls, but not far from the surface is a palpable apprehension about national security that was absent in ’92. Wars still rage in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the prospect of a military confrontation with Iran now seems jarringly real. And even though it’s been seven years since 9/11, vivid memories of that traumatic day endure; it is critical for any presidential candidate to convince the public at an emotional level that they will be safe under his leadership. This anxiety wasn’t present in 1992.
Already, there are signs that this commander-in-chief gap is hindering Obama. In the post-World War II era, two terms is generally the limit to the public’s patience with either party controlling the White House. That is truer this year than ever. The Republican label hasn’t been this poisonous at least since Watergate and Democrats are on the verge of their second consecutive rout in Congressional elections. And in Obama, they are poised to nominate a standard-bearer whom – unlike many previous nominees – most voters actually like on a personal level, a seemingly trite but actually powerful factor in an election. And yet Obama leads McCain by just a few points in most polls.
Against this backdrop, it would be an irresponsible political risk for Obama to enter the general election with a running mate who didn’t have a national security resume deeper than his. Specifically, this means he should steer clear of Tim Kaine and Kathleen Sebelius, two popular governors who reside at the top of many insidery lists of prospective V.P. choices.
Their attractions are considerable. Kaine could provide a critical boost in Virginia, where an Obama win would severely complicate any McCain victory strategy. And a partnership with Sebelius, a moderate and camera-friendly Kansan, would stir much interest for its sheer boldness. With no major developments on the international scene between now and the election, an Obama-Kaine or an Obama-Sebelius ticket could plausibly withstand McCain’s concerted effort to exploit the commander-in-chief gap.
But it would be a risk. There are signs of stability in Iraq, but who knows for how long? And the situation in Afghanistan seems to be worsening by the day. Then there’s Iran: how will Americans respond to a game of chicken between Iran and Israel in September or October? Any of those situations could bring Americans’ latent national security insecurities right back to the surface. Then how would a Democratic ticket with no significant foreign policy experience look?
From an electoral standpoint, what Obama needs is his own Dick Cheney – a running-mate who will be celebrated by the press, as Cheney was when George W. Bush picked him in 2000, for his “gravitas” and who in the fall campaign will project a calm, mature, and commanding demeanor that will offer emotional reassurance to voters. Chuck Hagel would fill this role brilliantly. Sam Nunn could pull it off too, and probably Joe Biden as well.
It seems clear that more than 50 percent of voters want to vote for Obama this fall. They will feel much more comfortable about doing it if Obama teams up with a running-mate who looks, sounds and acts like a President. Thia time, the conventional wisdom is right.