Lots of Questions, Still No Answers on V.P. Choices

Not surprisingly, Tom Brokaw tried six different times to prod Barack Obama into saying something revealing about his running-mate deliberations on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.” And not surprisingly, Obama refused to play along.

For the record, Brokaw specifically inquired whether Obama: (1) feels extra pressure to put a national security expert on his ticket; (2) is inclined “to break the old rules” and ignore geography in his selection; (3) might be tempted choose “a Southern white male Protestant,” the demographic designation that has correlated with most of the Democratic Party’s national victories since 1960; (4) is considering Hillary Clinton; (5) is, as claimed by a Hillary backer who received a phone call from Obama recently, less inclined to pick her because of her husband; (6) will, because of timing issues related to the Olympics (which will be broadcast by NBC!), wait until the Democratic convention in late August to announce his selection.

Obama’s responses were about as substantive and elucidative as the average answer at a Bill Belichick press conference. “You know, we will make the announcement when we make the announcement,” Obama said to Brokaw’s sixth question, roughly the same answer he gave to the previous five. Only then did Brokaw give up and change the subject to banking regulations.

The time-consuming exchange illustrated perfectly how maddening and pointless it is to ask a presidential candidate about the V.P. process – and yet it is probably the subject that both Obama and John McCain are most frequently asked about. This is nothing new – the pre-convention months have been like this for decades now – and Veepstakes handicapping is an enjoyable pastime for armchair political strategists. But still, we haven’t seemed to learn yet – after decades of doing this – that asking the presumptive nominees about any of this is a waste of time and just spoils the fun. (That said, would Brokaw have had any better luck drawing something useful out of Obama if he’d asked him to assure nervous Democrats that his V.P. choice will, in fact, be a member of the Democratic Party?)

No matter. The questions will persist until Obama and McCain make their final choices, and so will the non-answers from the candidates, just like every other election year. We may think we know who’s on each man’s short list, but be careful: when Chris Dodd starts telling the world that he’s been asked to supply Obama’s campaign with personal documents, it’s an almost certain sign that we’ve entered the age of the “Courtesy Vet” – that is, taking extra steps to make a non-viable V.P. prospect seem (for political purposes) as if he or she is under serious consideration. If history is any guide, we’ll know nothing concrete until – all of a sudden – a verifiable list of V.P. finalists for one candidate is leaked to several outlets, signaling that the announcement is days away.

In 2004, remember, the final pre-announcement leaks from the Kerry side indicated that the choice had come down to John Edwards and Dick Gephardt. In 2000, Al Gore’s finalists were Edwards, Kerry, Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman, while George W. Bush’s were John Danforth and Dick Cheney. Sometimes the media has been fooled, too, like in 1988 when half of the press corps jetted off for Ohio, believing that John Glenn was Michael Dukakis’ inevitable choice and that Lloyd Bentsen the other finalists – like Lloyd Bentsen – were just for show. Woops. Leaking a finalist list can be helpful to the campaigns, a way to test the party’s and the public’s potential reaction to the various options. But only when we reach this point will anyone be able to say with much credibility who is and who is not under serious consideration.

In the past, it’s been easy to predict when this chain of events would play out. In the modern era, the parties have always had to schedule their conventions around the summer Olympics (except in 1988 when the Seoul games were held in late September, and in 2000 when the Sydney games took place in the early part of that month). In some years, one party (the out-of-power party, which goes first by tradition) has held its convention before the Games and the other has gone after. In other years, they’ve both gone after. The gap between conventions has typically been a month – and never less than two weeks – and with only one exception (Kerry’s pick of Edwards last time around), nominees have announced their selection within one week of their conventions.

But this year is a different. For the first time in the television age, the conventions will fall on back-to-back weeks, with only about 90 hours between the end of Barack Obama’s Denver acceptance speech and the opening gavel for the G.O.P. festivities in Minneapolis. Traditionally, the candidate whose party holds the last convention has waited until after his opponent’s convention to make his V.P. pick; but for McCain to do that this year, he’d have to announce his choice on a Friday or over the weekend – hardly optimal timing. Moreover, the Democratic convention will open the day after the Beijing games close, leaving no time for Obama to slip in a pre-convention announcement that will dominate the news – unless he makes his move before the Olympics start on August 8.

McCain’s campaign, in particular, has been making noise about junking tradition and revealing its V.P. in the pre-August 8 period, presumably before Obama. Some of this noise, like last week’s leak to Robert Novak of a bogus imminent announcement, is a disingenuous – but effective – ploy to compete for press coverage. But McCain also has more to gain than Obama by making an early pick. Starved for coverage and in need of a reintroduction to the public, he could benefit significantly from the several days’ worth of saturation coverage that would come with an early August announcement. Obama, who leads in polls and hardly needs to beg for attention, can better afford to wait until his convention, in essence trading some extra publicity for the strategic advantage of knowing how McCain’s pick has affected the race before making his own decision.

It would be rather extraordinary if McCain does opt to go first. Waiting for the other guy to make his V.P. move is typically a luxury that the nominee of the incumbent party is happy to have. But McCain faces an extraordinary challenge in this election, and that would seem to call for some extraordinary strategic moves. Lots of Questions, Still No Answers on V.P. Choices