Barack Obama has been getting a lot of advice about whom he should pick for his running mate. But the "four-star checkmate" contingent and the no-woman-but-Hillary crowd must be feeling a little left out in the cold, if we can believe what all the vice-presidential crystal-ball-ers and tea-leaf readers are telling us these days.
For starters, the notion that Hillary Clinton is, by definition, the only woman Obama can or should pick for VP is just silly.
The general argument for Hillary as Obama's running mate is that, based on those 18 million votes Hillary and her supporters keep reminding us about, Hillary deserves the vice-presidency, as a kind of consolation prize for coming in second. But leaving aside the fact that the Democratic nominating contest is a race for delegates, not votes; leaving aside, too, the fact that the very idea of "the popular vote" is meaningless in a contest comprised of both primaries and caucuses, some open and some closed; leaving aside all of that, the only way Hillary actually still could "have" 18 million votes is if it were a static electorate --- which it's not.
Hillary earned her 18 million votes over the course of five months, and some of those who voted for her in the earlier contests had switched their loyalties by the end of the primary. In the California primary, for example, Hillary edged Obama by 8+ points, 51% to 43%. But three months later, California voters said in response to a poll that, given the chance to vote again, they preferred Obama by 6 points, 49% to 43%. Obama's net gain: 14 points. A similar New Jersey poll, conducted around the same time, found that, although Hillary defeated Obama there by 10 points, 54% to 44%, Jersey voters preferred Obama by 7 points, 45% to 38%. Obama's net gain: 17 points. Both those polls were conducted while Hillary still was a publicly active candidate in the race.
The fact is, people's minds change over time. And, however many supporters Hillary Clinton still "has," chances are that, at this late stage of the campaign, it's a lot less than 18 million.
Fair enough, though: Hillary Clinton ran for President and got a lot of votes in the process. But does that mean that Hillary is the only political woman who can, as she likes to say, "break the highest and hardest glass ceiling," by becoming President or Vice-President? Wouldn't any woman elected to those positions do that?
Obviously, Hillary Clinton is a brand. That her fame, like her political skills, her access to power, and her office, can't be separated from the opportunities afforded her in being (and remaining) married to an even larger brand doesn't change the brute fact of her fame, her skills, and her access, all of which have real political value. But there is something reductive, elitist, anti-democratic, astonishingly arrogant, and downright anti-feminist in the assumption that Hillary Clinton embodies every political asset Barack Obama can and should want in a VP, woman or otherwise. Indeed, in the context of the necessary reinvigoration of the Democratic Party --- for this, as much as anything else, is what an Obama presidency would be about --- the self-censoring, self-negating, and, ultimately, self-sabotaging no-woman-but-Hillary-impulse betrays a complete failure to understand who Barack Obama is, and a complete absence of curiosity and imagination about who has what he really needs to help move the party forward.
On that last score, there are Democrats who have very strong opinions about which boy on the various media shortlists they would like to see as Obama's running mate. But who ever heard anyone prop their personal pick and object to the other boy who's getting more buzz that week, by saying, "Well, jeez, if he's gonna pick a man, why not just pick Bill Richardson?" But that's exactly what one hears from Hillary partisans, with respect to Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
Here's the thing, though. Hillary Clinton is Hillary Clinton, and Kathleen Sebelius is Kathleen Sebelius. Each brings her own unique set of political assets to Obama's vice-presidential contemplations. For my own money, Sebelius's political approach and proven abilties are far more in line with Obama's vision of presidential governance and leadership. Ultimately, only Obama can say for sure.
But the biggest reason that Hillary should not be Obama's VP has to do with the little present she gave to Republicans, a year ago. It's a gift that keeps on giving.
Ever since Hillary sought, in July 2007, to poison the well of Obama's nascent candidacy, by branding him as "irresponsible and, frankly, naïve" on matters of foreign policy and national security --- and, despite what Hillary and Bill would have us believe, those four words were the Original and, as it turns out, Defining Attack of the Democratic primary (and perhaps of the entire campaign) --- we have been hearing, from an endless parade of pundits and other armchair philosophers, some version of the following: Should Obama accede to the Democratic nomination, he simply must choose as his running mate someone with clear foreign policy or national security "credentials," to balance his own "obvious" deficiencies in this area.
Never mind that Obama is the one whose judgment on the Iraq war has turned out to be right. Never mind that Hillary --- the same Hillary who, according to Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, has a "spine of steel" --- was the one who not only caved to George Bush on Iraq but who still cannot bring herself to express any unqualified remorse about her vote. Never mind that, beginning within days of Obama's remarks last summer on Pakistan, on presidential diplomacy, and on nuclear weapons, waves of editorial and op-ed writers began to affirm that Obama's thinking is well within the mainstream of Democratic foreign policy. Never mind that respected political analysts from New York Times contributing writer James Traub to Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria have concluded that Obama, far from being a naïve idealist on foreign policy, is a next-generation realist in the tradition of Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and George H.W. Bush.
Never mind all that. From the moment Hillary Clinton uttered "irresponsible and, frankly naïve," the damage was done. And although the damage is by no means irreparable, the perception wrought by those four hellish words remains the reality against which Obama runs against the "experience" candidacy of John McCain.
Were Democrats to pay attention to what Obama actually has said (and written) about foreign policy and national security --- moreover, were they to compare what Obama has said and written with what McCain has --- they would know that they are in extraordinarily good hands on these issues. Instead, they have paid less attention to what Obama has said for himself than to what Hillary has said about him, and to what the traditional media have said about McCain --- including the laughable shibboleth that, by some mystical osmosis, being a P.O.W. forty years ago makes one a lifelong savant on all matters related to foreign policy and national security.
Of course, a presidential campaign is, among other things, a media proposition; and the one thing Obama can't do is to look into a camera and say, "My friends, I was a P.O.W. I know war." Which is why some nervous Democrats, looking for a silver-bullet VP with which to neutralize McCain, latched on to freshman Virginia senator and former Navy Secretary Jim Webb this past spring and early summer --- the (literally minded) idea being that the only way to counter one old soldier was with another one. Tit for tat. The speculation was good for Webb --- or, rather, for Webb's book tour --- but, eventually, Webb removed himself from speculation, fairly quickly to be replaced in the fantasies of the military VP set by Wes Clark.
Just last week, in a piece bluntly enough titled, "Why Obama's VP Needs to Be a 4-Star General," Andy Ostroy offered Obama a VP shortlist which included Clark, along with fellow retired Generals Colin Powell, Eric Shinseki, and Anthony Zinni. One of these four must be on Obama's ticket, Ostroy argued, because "Obama himself has zero foreign policy or national security chops."
Really? What does Ostroy mean by "chops"? Has he been listening to, or reading, anything that Obama has been saying or writing on foreign policy and national security, for the last six years? Exactly which kind of "chops" was it that totally screwed the country over for the last seven years, for want of enough sobriety, judgment, or long-term vision for the country's foreign policy and national security? Does Dick Cheney have "chops"? Does John McCain have "chops"? Really?!!
And since when does any Administration's best foreign policy and national security "chops" reside in the vice-presidency? Isn't that what the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the National Security Adviser, are for?
And let's assume that Mr. Ostroy gets his wish, and that Obama chooses, as his running mate, a four-star general. Do we really want to set ourselves up for a crypto-military presidency in 2016?
Much as I prefer an outside-the-Beltway pick like Kathleen Sebelius or Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, it may well turn out that --- absent an imminent endorsement by Colin Powell --- Barack Obama has yet to well enough close the deal on foreign policy and national security "experience," to keep from choosing an establishment type like Joe Biden, or even Bill Richardson, as VP. But either of those choices could work in ways that neither a four-star general, on [his] own, nor Hillary Clinton, on her own, could.
Unlike any of the generals that Ostroy proposes, both Richardson and Biden are generalists --- experienced and well-versed in both foreign and domestic policy, as we like our presidents to be.
And unlike Hillary Clinton, neither Joe Biden nor Bill Richardson betrayed Democrats by telling the country at large that Barack Obama is "irresponsible" and "naïve" --- that he is, in effect, unpresidential.
Based on all the public evidence, it seems much more likely that Obama will choose Sebelius, Schweitzer, Biden, or Richardson, than that he will choose Hillary Clinton or a four-star general.
This is a very hopeful sign --- both for Democrats and for all Americans.