You Must Be Joe-king
While I was taking a break from the relentless celebrity back-and-forth between John McCain and Barack Obama earlier today, I came across this head-scratcher of an item from ABC News reporter Jan Crawford Greenburg. She reports that top advisers in the McCain campaign, in their search for a transformative vice presidential pick, are looking toward…wait for it…Joe Lieberman. After I checked my desk calendar to make sure that today is indeed July 31st, rather than April 1st, I actually gave this scenario a few minutes of serious thought.
Given the criteria for running mate selection that I have set out in previous posts, a Lieberman pick works in one respect, but fails in at least two others, and thus would be problematic for McCain. As I wrote yesterday, a presidential nominee should pick a running mate for whom he has a genuine personal affinity. Lieberman certainly fulfills this requirement (as does Senator Lindsay Graham). His close friendship with McCain is well-documented, and he is often visible at campaign events just off McCain's shoulder, even stepping in to aid his buddy when circumstances require it.
But I’ve also made the case that presidential nominees should not dip back into the pool of failed party tickets for a running mate. I think this holds even with the novelty of having a non-Republican (unless Lieberman changes his affiliation) on the Republican ticket. Lieberman would draw voter focus back to the contentious presidential election of 2000, rather than to the future, in what by all accounts is a change election. Lieberman had his one good chance with Al Gore, and I don’t see him summiting that peak again.
Finally, for all the speculative talk of a cross-party unity ticket in the past few years, my sense is that voters would not know quite what to make of a former Democratic nominee for vice president joining the Republican ticket. The theory is that choosing Lieberman would shake up the campaign narrative and cement McCain’s standing with moderates and independents, without whom he is unlikely to win in November. But it would also roil conservatives mightily and further mobilize Democrats who are already highly irritated with Lieberman’s behavior over the past few years. So, while the idea was sufficient to take me away from cultural (and now political) reference points Britney Spears and Paris Hilton for a few minutes, I just don’t see it happening.
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Veep Speculation Raises a Few Eyebrows
With the news that Virginia Governor Tim Kaine has joined Indiana Senator Evan Bayh and Delaware Senator Joe Biden on a very short list of potential Democratic vice presidential nominees, rampant media speculation has broken out that Barack Obama’s selection of a running mate is imminent. Bayh and Biden have long been mentioned as vice presidential material, but the news that Kaine is included in this select group of finalists helped raise the political buzz to a fever pitch over the past few days. In fact, Kaine himself seemed somewhat amused by all of the sudden media attention. Still, until I see reports that Obama has done some in-depth interviewing of these finalists, I will continue to believe that a final choice is more than just a few days away.
My own long-held view on selecting a running mate is that a presidential nominee should largely dispense with all of the conventional wisdom about ideological ticket-balancing and geographical calculation, and instead pick someone for whom he has a genuine affinity. The intense demands of the general election campaign require that a presidential nominee trust his running mate, enjoy campaigning with him or her around the clock for several months, and share a similar vision for where to take the country once in office. This kind of personal synergy will be immediately evident on the stump and make for a much more dynamic ticket. By all preliminary reports, Kaine appears to fit this bill.
Were Obama to look for a more conventional pick based on ideology, geography, and relevant policy experience, then, as I’ve noted previously, Evan Bayh would be a very solid pick for the Democrats. As for Joe Biden, while he would no doubt bring a long list of credentials and tremendous entertainment value to the Democrat ticket, what I am hearing from more than one reader is that the risk he would become a distraction is just too great, and I tend to agree with this assessment. So, if it turns out that Governor Kaine is indeed Obama’s preferred choice, then we should all get ready for lots of references to Kaine's famous left eyebrow, first introduced to Americans in his 2006 Democratic response (click Flash player icon on right to watch) to President Bush's State of the Union address.
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Skip the Reaction Shot
An interesting piece today by Jonathan Martin and Mike Allen at Politico nicely underscores a pair of my recent posts on John McCain. Although the McCain campaign had promised to counter-program Barack Obama’s trip to the Middle East and Europe last week with events focused on pressing domestic issues, the campaign instead (as I warned) fell into the avoidable trap of reacting daily (and with increasing irritation) to Obama’s every move overseas.
The Politico piece is interesting because it suggests that this reactive behavior by the McCain campaign is not a one-week aberration, but instead a reflection of the organization’s underlying structure and key personalities. In its own defense, the McCain campaign has argued that Obama’s newness on the political scene, and the media’s preoccupation with his candidacy, leave few options for breaking into the news cycle other than the kinds of reaction shots we saw from Senator McCain last week.
McCain did a better job of charting his own course on Sunday, during an interview with George Stephanopoulos on This Week. But he may have also created new problems for himself on Social Security, and his awkward response to a question about gay adoption is topped only by this recent reaction to a question about insurance coverage for Viagra and birth control. According to Politico, the McCain campaign plans to hit Obama even harder in the coming months. Whatever the campaign decides to do, it can’t afford another reactive week like the last one. 
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While You Were Away
Although the presidential race marches on both here and abroad, I must step away from the website ever so briefly. But I will return on Tuesday, July 29th with new content for you. -Dean
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A McCain Head-Fake?
You may have caught the buzz over the past few days that John McCain would announce his vice presidential running mate later this week, in order to step on the wall-to-wall media coverage of Barack Obama’s trip to the Middle East and Europe. When I first heard this idea floated, it immediately struck me as implausible. Even if the McCain campaign’s vetters have already produced a serious short-list of finalists, I don’t yet get the sense that McCain himself has taken the close look necessary for him to make an informed final selection. Still, the conflicting and ambiguous signs emanating from the McCain campaign’s orbit were sufficient to generate a fair bit of media coverage of the possibility.
Perhaps the McCain campaign views this head-fake as humorous payback for what it sees as fawning press coverage of the Obama trip. Whatever the campaign’s motivation, it also struck me that this week was supposed to be about Republican counter-programming on domestic issues like the economy, health care, and energy. But virtually all of the news coverage of McCain over the past few days has been about either his response to Obama’s comments on the surge in Iraq, or his pending vice presidential pick. So, while the McCain campaign is having some short-term success in garnering additional news coverage for its candidate this week, the campaign needs to ask itself whether, in doing so, it is helping or hindering McCain in his attempt to get the coverage he needs.
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McCain Stateside
It has been fascinating to watch the McCain campaign deal with the hoopla surrounding Barack Obama’s trip to the Middle East and Europe. The campaign’s decision to counter-program McCain on domestic issues in swing states (like today’s visit to New Hampshire) was a good one. But McCain needs to avoid getting pulled into a defensive posture on foreign policy this week, something the reporters covering him will attempt to do at every opportunity. You could hear the frustration in his voice yesterday, during multiple interviews on the network morning shows.
If McCain complains too vociferously, he runs the risk of drawing comparisons to an indignant Bob Dole in 1996. He would be better served by focusing on his own message this week, even if news coverage is muted in comparison to the media frenzy surrounding the Obama trip. There will be other opportunities to engage Obama on Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming months, but this week is not one of them. Metaphorically speaking, McCain should treat this as a July week at the beach, and try to stay cool.
Update:  From the sound of this clip of his town hall meeting in Rochester, New Hampshire this morning, McCain apparently opted to skip the beach.
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Obama in Afghanistan
Over the weekend, I eagerly anticipated the images of Barack Obama on his first visit to Afghanistan. My hope was that they would provide a better gauge of the foreign policy gravitas boost Obama might get from meeting with foreign leaders and our troops in the field this week. I will say that Obama looked good having breakfast with a young, ethnically diverse group of U.S. soldiers, and he hit a nice outside jumper on the basketball court, while many more looked on. But in the first images of his meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama looked, well, young. I am sure this is not the first reaction the Obama campaign would like most voters to have.
Still, Obama’s foreign policy positions have seemed prescient in recent weeks. With the Iraqi government now appearing to support a timeline for American troop withdrawal, the Bush Administration making diplomatic overtures to Iran, and John McCain calling for a troop surge in Afghanistan, the confluence of message and image couldn’t have been better for Obama. But a picture is worth a thousand words, and the Obama campaign is no doubt hoping that the visuals from this trip will spur upward movement in the polling numbers on Obama’s suitability as commander-in-chief. My sense after these initial images is a definite maybe. That said, my guess is that Obama will look sharp meeting with France’s first couple, but, as we know, that didn’t exactly help John Kerry in 2004.
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The Boys of Summer
You can catch me Sunday morning as a guest on WMUR-TV’s Close Up (Ch. 9, 10 a.m.). I’ll be joining host Sean McDonald, and my colleagues Dante Scala and Andy Smith of the University of New Hampshire for a campaign 2008 update.
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The Clinton Complication
Earlier today, President Clinton announced that he was ready and willing to campaign for Barack Obama. This proffer of support comes only days after Obama privately (or so he thought) told a potential donor that the former president posed a complication for Hillary Clinton’s chances of joining the Democratic ticket. While the operatic relationship between Bill Clinton and Obama continues to be a fascinating one to watch, I would be surprised to see President Clinton do any campaigning with Obama before the Democratic convention, and certainly not before the vice presidential pick is announced. 
Oddly enough, if Hillary Clinton does not receive the vice presidential nod, there may be added pressure from within the party for President Clinton to get out on the stump with Obama, in order to underscore his support for the nominee. But given the former president’s famous temper, he may need some time for the dust to settle first. Clinton has been a wild card throughout this election cycle, and my guess is that political observers and the media will continue to scrutinize his statements and actions with a closeness typically reserved for the nominee.
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A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s network television appearance as a surrogate for John McCain. For me, it was an opportunity to size up Pawlenty as a potential vice presidential pick for the Republican ticket. I noted at the time that Pawlenty had the misfortune of being paired with Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Emanuel’s trademark combative style made Pawlenty seem passive by comparison, which ultimately didn’t further his case for the number two spot.
Today, Politico runs an interesting piece speculating on what the future might hold for Congressman Emanuel. A rising star after his virtuoso performance as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2006 midterm elections, Emanuel could be in line for appointment to Barack Obama’s Illinois Senate seat, should Obama win in November. But the article suggests that Emanuel is much more interested in ascending to Speaker of the House sometime in the next ten years.
This strikes me as a plausible scenario, although it would be difficult for Emanuel to turn down the Senate seat, should Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich seek to appoint him to serve out Obama’s term. Unlike Obama, Emanuel is a creature of the Washington political scene, so I don’t see any great interest for him in returning home to run for governor at some point in the future. Also, his legislative style is well-suited for the rough and tumble political environment of the House of Representatives. So perhaps this would indeed be one of those rare cases when a politician declines to have his ticket punched to the Senate. In any event, Emanuel will certainly be someone to watch over the next decade.
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By the Bayh
A brief scheduling item caught my attention earlier today. Barack Obama will travel to Indiana tomorrow to convene a national security summit at Purdue University. What is of particular interest to me is that this will be the first joint appearance for Obama and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, since Bayh strongly backed Hillary Clinton in her narrow win in the Indiana Primary on May 6th. Bayh has been mentioned as a potential Democratic vice presidential running mate as far back as 1992, when (at age 37) he was already finishing his first term as governor of the state. So this will be our first opportunity to see what a potential Obama-Bayh ticket might look like.
You may recall that in the current election cycle, Bayh initially flirted with his own presidential bid.  He formed an exploratory committee in December 2006, but only weeks later decided not to enter the race. Back in 1996, Bayh delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention (just like Obama in 2004), and, at the time, was cast as the moderate, post-Clinton face of the party’s future.
A lot has changed politically in the past 12 years, and Bayh is sometimes dismissed as a bland politician, but I would be surprised if he were not carefully vetted for the vice presidential spot. His armed services and intelligence committee work in the Senate, and his two terms as Indiana’s governor, certainly put him over the credentials threshold, not to mention the potential for putting an important swing state (and perhaps a few Clinton supporters) into play.  Tomorrow we should get a glimpse of whether there might be any ticket chemistry there.
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Under the Cover of Satire
As you may have read over the weekend, the cover illustration on the new issue of The New Yorker magazine is causing quite a stir among political elites. You can see the drawing, entitled The Politics of Fear, here. It sharply caricatures the potentially radical nature of Barack and Michelle Obama’s politics, and captures the way in which voter anxieties about the couple are being exploited as an electoral tool by some right wing ideologues. I must say that my first reaction to the illustration was that it is a very smart piece of political satire, although the bin Laden portrait and American flag burning in the Oval Office fireplace are perhaps a bit of overkill.
That being said, I understand why the Obama campaign has reacted so strongly to the drawing. With the magazine cover likely to be seen ad nauseum on the internet and cable news, the satirical intent of the illustration could get lost in the broader ideological conflict being fought there daily by political surrogates from both parties. Still, while good political satire provokes (and this drawing clearly does), it can also educate. And for me, the potential for a public discussion of the underlying issues raised by The Politics of Fear outweighs the risk that some voters will see in the cover’s depiction of the Obamas not satire, but a confirmation of their private fears.
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Bad Grammar
During my years as a political science professor, I often regaled my students with the story of the worst public appearance by a major presidential candidate that I had ever witnessed firsthand. This politician displayed a tin ear for politics on that particular day that was truly breathtaking in scope. The event occurred during the 1996 presidential primaries, and the occasion was a town hall meeting between then-Texas Senator Phil Gramm and a large group of students at Dartmouth College. Remember, there was a brief period of time in the mid-1990s, when Gramm was actually considered a serious contender for the Republican nomination. He even tied Bob Dole for first place in the summer 1995 Iowa Straw Poll, but ended up dropping out of the race just before the New Hampshire Primary. My main recollection of this disastrous campaign stop is Gramm’s visible irritation at being asked tough (but fair) questions by a succession of well-prepared students, who quickly pulled the increasingly testy Senator off of his talking points.
That same tin ear was on full display yesterday, as Gramm refused to retract any of his recent comments that the United States is a nation of whiners, suffering through a mental recession. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Gramm’s take on the economy is tough, but accurate. One would still think that his 24 years of service in the U.S. House and Senate would give him sufficient political instincts to realize that his comments would put John McCain in a terrible position. As McCain’s top economic adviser, Gramm was considered a possible future Treasury Secretary. But McCain is already struggling with the perception that his grasp of economic policy is shaky, so he moved aggressively yesterday to distance himself from Gramm. A glimpse of that Dartmouth town hall meeting just might have saved McCain the trouble.
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Obama Takes a Left Jab
During a casual phone conversation yesterday, an acquaintance suggested to me that if the Huffington Post is mad at Barack Obama, then he probably has a very good chance of winning in November. This came in response to my initial comment that it was quite a change of pace for me to see the left-leaning website’s editors excoriating Obama on the cable news shows recently for his support of new federal wiretapping legislation. This FISA subplot is just part of what is perhaps this week’s hottest topic on the campaign trail, the question of whether Obama is tacking to the ideological center on a variety of policy issues, just in time for the general election campaign.
As I have said before, elections can be driven by a competitive mobilization of core partisan bases, but they can also be determined by a contest for the hearts and minds of those occupying the ideological center. Since the Democratic Party’s liberal base is already more highly mobilized than it has been in decades, it makes some strategic sense for Obama to also concentrate on the middle of the ideological spectrum. At a minimum, it could neutralize John McCain’s own attempts to court this same group of swing voters.
Nor should any of this be particularly surprising. Obama’s lofty post-partisan appeal in the primaries was based on an implicitly centrist vision of governance. One would expect that his policy positions would eventually need to match the earlier rhetoric, if he is to assemble a winning electoral coalition. Whether these represent true policy preferences or positions of convenience is primarily of importance to the two activist bases, and Obama’s rather artful retort that the people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me has managed to put them both on the defensive.
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Kerry is Not So Very
Discussing potential vice presidential picks for three consecutive days is probably a record for me, and I promise to move on to other topics tomorrow. But an item caught my attention this afternoon, which raised for me again the quadrennial question of whether a political party should dip back into its well of unsuccessful general election tickets for its nominees. When I read that John Kerry’s Senate campaign manager was forced to issue a statement saying that Senator Kerry was not interested in being Barack Obama’s running mate, my first reaction was simply why was this question even asked? If I mentioned that the answer is a combination of Chris Matthews and a Massachusetts-based political website, perhaps that information would be sufficient.
But the item raises the more serious question of whether it makes sense for Obama to go back to politicians like John Kerry, John Edwards, or even Al Gore for a potential running mate. I have always thought that this is a bad idea. I understand there is a courtesy/respect aspect to again floating the name of individuals who were recently at the center of a political party’s universe, and for many Democrats, it’s the least that could be done for Al Gore, given what he endured in 2000. Still, the combination of an endless primary season, media saturation coverage of the candidates, and the intensity of the general election campaign, usually means that voters are ready to move on to other options when the election cycle begins anew.
While it is true that there is a retrospective component to how voters evaluate candidates, that calculus is usually reserved for sitting incumbents. For a current challenger to reach back to former candidates who did not win in their day, only prevents voters from focusing on the future, and inevitably leads them to revisit the foibles and missteps of those earlier races. So, unless the Obama campaign wants to hear the familiar refrain of I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it ringing in its ears, its vice presidential vetters should look elsewhere (and, in reality, they almost certainly are).
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Webb Access Denied
In a handful of conversations I’ve had with Obama supporters recently, one name keeps surfacing as a favorite for the vice presidential slot, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia. So I am sure those voters were sorely disappointed yesterday, when Webb appeared to firmly remove himself from consideration for the Democratic ticket. While conventional wisdom suggests that no politician will refuse to serve as a running mate when asked directly by the nominee, Webb’s under no circumstances statement yesterday seemed to rule it out, and most certainly brought the vetting of his candidacy by the Obama campaign to an abrupt halt.
While these voters told me that they appreciated Webb’s military credentials and his outspoken opposition to the Iraq War, what really intrigued them was Webb’s penchant for bluntness and his independence of mind. Webb’s now famous exchange with President Bush at a White House reception for new members of Congress serves as a classic case in point. Any political professional will tell you that this wild card aspect of Webb’s personality is precisely the kind of personal quality that can cause headaches for a presidential campaign in the heat of a general election contest, when a nominee depends on his running mate to stick to the script. But these voters seemed to value Webb as a fresh political presence much as they do Obama, and they saw the potential for a real electoral synergy there. Unfortunately for them, Webb was exercising that very same independence of mind, when he removed himself from any further consideration.
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Running Mate Update
If you didn't catch The Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio this morning, I participated in a lively discussion regarding potential Republican and Democratic vice presidential running mates. You can still listen to the show here. I will be back in action tomorrow with new web content for you.
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Thanks and Happy Fourth
I want to take a moment to thank you for your continued interest in my political commentary and analysis. June was a banner month for, with a record number of visits to the website. I hope you will stay with me through the general election in November and beyond, as we have so much to discuss, and the best is yet to come (including a few surprises). Keep your emails, comment postings, and website feedback coming, as I always appreciate hearing from you, even when we disagree.
In the meantime, I will be away from the website for a few days, in order to celebrate the holiday with family, and will return on Tuesday, July 8th with new content for you. Have a safe and happy Fourth of July weekend. - Dean
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Choose Your Vice
On Monday morning, I will be a guest on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange, in order to do some political handicapping of potential Democratic and Republican vice presidential nominees, a favorite summer pastime of political junkies everywhere. You can listen to the show live at 9 a.m. here (lower left).
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The Unity Ticket
Several people have asked me whether Friday’s rally in Unity, New Hampshire increases the likelihood that Barack Obama will choose Hillary Clinton to be his running mate later this summer. Taking up this very same issue on Saturday, New York Daily News columnist Michael Goodwin made the case that Clinton’s vice presidential stock is now on the rise as a result of the event. It is true that in the weeks since her infamous non-concession speech, Clinton has seemed genuinely gracious in her willingness to cede the nomination spotlight to Obama, and both she and Obama appeared quite comfortable with each other at the Unity event. But my sense is that ultimately it won’t have a big impact on the Obama campaign’s calculus for selecting the vice presidential nominee.
Given the divisiveness of the primary contest between Clinton and Obama, the Obama campaign must be quite pleased by the speed with which the Democratic Party has unified around its nominee. With polling data showing women moving to support Obama more quickly than expected, and Obama holding solid leads over McCain in battleground states previously dominated by Clinton, the Obama campaign really does not have any more incentive to offer the spot to Clinton now than it did when her supporters were demanding it much more loudly in early June. As Goodwin notes in his piece, all of this could quickly change, but the Obama campaign seems quite comfortable for the moment in charting its own course for the general election.
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