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M.S. Bellows, Jr. Headshot

Unconventional Wisdom: Obama-Kerry 2008!

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By M.S. Bellows, Jr. and Mayhill Fowler

Back in June, during a flurry of telephonic press conferences by both campaigns on national defense issues featuring John Kerry (Dem-MA) for Obama and Joe Lieberman (Vichy-CT) for McCain, one of us (Bellows) wondered: is it possible that Obama already has chosen Kerry to be his running mate?

Impossible. Absurd. Except that yesterday another OffTheBus writer, Mayhill Fowler, voiced the same crazy prediction, which she'd reached privately over the course of several weeks, after watching how well and how passionately Kerry's been stumping for Obama. So out of roughly 7 billion people currently inhabiting the earth, that makes two of us (plus The Hill's Bill Press, who came late to the game) who predict this.

As the clock ticks down to Saturday, when Obama has promised to appear publicly with the lucky winner whether or not he's announced his or her name beforehand, pundits everywhere are laying their cards on the table guessing who the veep nominee will be, and we've decided to join the fun, swim against the current, and lay down our marker for John Kerry. To some extent our prediction is based on gut instinct -- a certain "truthiness" that comes from having watched and listened to Kerry more closely than most (less obsessive) people -- but there also are some fairly rational justifications behind our choice. Here are our top ten reasons - plus one for luck - why we think Kerry may be Obama's August Surprise:

1. Kerry Would Help Heal the Party: Obama's well aware that the rift between him and Hillary Clinton's more fervent supporters is far from healed. The actual membership of Party Unity My Ass ("PUMA") may be irrelevant in electoral terms, but the "woman scorned" vote (which includes both men and women, of course) remains significant and could represent the edge in a close race. Whomever Obama chooses will be second-guessed by those who say "it should have been Hillary," but there are two people on the planet that unquestionably deserve the job if they want it: Al Gore and John Kerry. Gore's not interested, but Kerry is. And if Kerry is willing to humble himself enough to be a freshman senator's running mate after coming so close to the Presidency himself, even the most passionate Clintonista will be hard-pressed to claim that the choice represents a betrayal.

2. It's Too Late To Choose Someone Else: Making matters worse, Obama's timeline has been thrown off. Ideally, he would have announced his running mate well in advance of the Democratic National Convention, which starts Monday, to give Clinton's supporters time to adjust to the idea of a non-Clinton ticket, do some healing, and come back on board to keep McCain out of office. A last-minute announcement, on the other hand, risks putting the party's dirty laundry on display on live TV -- something the Democratic Party learned in 1968 and again in 1980 is not conducive to success in November. The risk of the Convention appearing to be divided is compounded by the party's decision to allow Clinton's name to be placed into nomination so that her delegates can have the gratification of voting for her; if there are protests at the same time, that footage will lead every news program in the country.

Time could have minimized these wounds -- but the announcement has been delayed, first by the jockeying between the two campaigns to see who will declare their running mate first, and then by the uncertainty over how much damage Tropical Storm Fay would do in Florida. (Obama doesn't want the polling bump from the announcement diluted by news of a second Katrina, especially in a key swing state that's already been battered by Hurricane Hillary.) Now Fay has planted herself over Florida, trapped there by a high pressure system, and Obama can't wait any longer, which effectively makes Kerry -- and Clinton herself -- the only candidates who could ensure a relatively peaceful Convention.

3. Kerry Is Proving His Mettle As A "Counter-Attack" Dog: Traditionally, one of the essential tasks of the vice presidential nominee is to serve as the campaign's attack dog, allowing the Presidential nominee to float spotlessly above the fray. McCain gave self-proclaimed "Independent Democrat" (and former Democratic vice-presidential nominee) Joe Lieberman a trial run in that role back in June, when Lieberman was the McCain campaign's designated disser in a series of press conference calls attacking Obama's position and qualifications in the foreign policy and national security arenas. Lieberman, eager to prove he was up to the task of doing McCain's dirty work and bitter over his rejection by Democratic voters, went overboard in those calls, even provoking Obama to confront him in the well of the Senate after one of them. But Obama had a strong advocate fighting for him already: John Kerry.

Many still fault Kerry for his failure to fight back effectively when the Swiftboaters surfaced in 2004, and they're right to do so. Kerry would be running for his second term today if he'd only had the intestinal fortitude to look directly at George W. Bush in one of the debates that year and say, simply and directly: "I've looked down the barrel of an M-16 at an enemy of our nation, put him in my sights, and squeezed the trigger. You never have. And anyone, anyone who thinks I'll do any less to our enemies today knows nothing about who I really am." The fact that he was too polite -- too much of a Massachusetts Brahmin -- to make a guts move like that cost him the election -- and cost a lot of other soldiers, floundering in Iraq for the past four years, their lives.

But the public has become more skeptical, and Kerry himself has matured tremendously, in the subsequent four years. When a McCain surrogate, Bud Day, inexplicably took it upon himself in early July to spontaneously, and literally, Swiftboat Kerry himself, it fell flat. Overtly negative attacks in general, and anti-war-hero attacks in particular, just don't have the same traction they had four years ago, which means Kerry can't be attacked again the way he was last time. In fact, the McCain campaign itself accused Obama supporter Gen. Wesley Clark of "Swiftboating" when he suggested McCain's military experiences didn't necessarily qualify him to lead the country.

And Kerry, as we said, seems like a different man. The John Kerry who did honorable battle with Joe Lieberman on Obama's behalf last June wouldn't have lost his own election in 2004. He simply did a remarkable job, both on the conference calls with several hundred journalists and on various talking head programs, retaining his composure and even his sense of humor while fighting back the way so many of us wish he had in 2004. He marshaled the facts, argued persuasively and passionately, and generally appeared, well, Presidential -- all without pulling his punches one bit. Lieberman looked like a sniveling toady by comparison. If McCain were foolish enough to choose Lieberman, the new John Kerry would win the vice-presidential debate the instant the cameras went live. Again: he's not the same man he was four years ago.

Perhaps even more importantly, Kerry has the ability to transform the standard "attack dog" role into something more in keeping with Obama's "new politics" message. The vice presidential nominee's job is to get in the trenches, and Kerry, who now is widely acknowledged as having been wronged by Day and the other Swiftboaters the last time around, is the perfect person to highlight and rebuff similar attacks when they happen now. Don't get us wrong -- Kerry knows how to attack too -- but he's subtle about it, as when he called McCain "confused" rather than just "old," and in general he's learned how to do battle on Obama's behalf in a way that seems more like defense than offense, getting his licks in without ever surrendering the white hat. It's delightful to watch: like a good Aikidoist, who can reduce an opponent to an exhausted heap without ever throwing a punch, Kerry has turned out to be a master of the non-attack and a perfect accessory for Obama's message of change from politics-as-usual.

4. Naming Kerry Would Be Bold and Unusual: Until his FISA vote and other "moves to the center," Obama seemed to specialize in bold, original decisions that brilliantly defied the conventional wisdom. He needs to make such a move now, both because such sideways thinking has worked well for him in the past and because part of his appeal is the perception that he's an outside-the-box sort of guy. Announcing Kerry would rock the political world and re-establish Obama as a game-changer, not because Kerry is anything other than a Beltway insider but simply because he's so unexpected.

5. Kerry's A War Hero: Few voters believe the Swiftboaters any more. John Kerry is a war hero, pure and simple, who earned three Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star, and the Silver Star in Vietnam. His heroism would go far to mitigate Obama's lack of military experience, and gives him a credible voice when it comes to matters of war and peace in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and elsewhere. The question he famously asked when testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 -- "how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" -- remains resonant with anti-war voters, including military families, today. And his military background continued into his political life; Kerry chaired the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs from 1991 to 1993 and was a co-sponsor, with McCain, of the resolution calling for an end to the trade embargo against Vietnam.

6. Kerry's A Catholic: It's easy to underestimate the importance of the Catholic vote, but it could be critical this year. Some Catholic archbishops tried in the last two cycles to unfairly sway their congregants to the Republican side by denying pro-choice politicians Communion and framing votes for Democrats as sinful, and Obama did poorly among Catholic Democrats in the primaries, but polls nevertheless show Catholics now evenly divided between McCain and Obama. It's not a demographic Obama can ignore: Catholics are a critical minority in many of the red states Obama hopes to turn blue (or at least purple, to help elect downballot Democrats) in November. Pennsylvania is 29% Catholic; Colorado, 14%; New Mexico, 21%; Nevada, 27%; Ohio, 18%; California, 28%. And 72% of Hispanics, another normally Democratic group with whom Obama has not performed up to par, are Catholic. Forget the old "what states will the running mate help win?" analysis; the answer is that running mates don't help win states at all; John Edwards lost his own home state in 2004. But a Catholic running mate might help Obama win over a few key Catholic and Latino votes across the nation, tipping one or more close contests his way. If nothing else, Kerry's Catholicism cancels out any "negative" from the fact that he doesn't come from a contested state.

7. Kerry Would Add Both Experience And the "Establishment's" Imprimatur to the Ticket: McCain is trying to paint Obama as a young upstart who hasn't yet earned the right to be President, arguing that an "ambition" that's meet and proper in a man of McCain's experience and stature is inappropriate and unseemly in someone as fresh-faced as Obama. McCain's not completely off base here: that same sentiment underlay much of Clinton's support in the primaries. The long-serving Kerry would add a gravitas and experience to the ticket that Obama lacks, both in perception (that leonine silver hair just looks regal) and in fact (Kerry, a Skull and Bones Yalie, literally knows where the bodies are buried in D.C.).

Even more important, though, is the fact that Kerry unquestionably is one of the party's elders. If a former Presidential nominee like Kerry is willing to set his own ego aside and serve as Obama's Vice President, it will be seen as an endorsement or imprimatur of Obama's whole candidacy, sending the clear message that it's not only the rabble (i.e., voters) who chose Obama, but the party's mature, sensible elite as well.

8. This Time, Kerry Will Get It Right With Ohioans: 'Nuff said.

9. Teresa Heinz Kerry Is Well-Known, and Well-Liked, in Pennsylvania: Kerry's wife Teresa, whom Republicans tried to portray as an out-of-touch heiress in '04, has strong ties to Pittsburgh, a working-class town where Obama needs a boost. Her first husband, John Heinz, was born there, taught at Carnegie Mellon University there, and served as a congressman and as a senator from Pennsylvania before his death in a 1991 plane crash, and since his death she has played a major role in the Heinz family's various philanthropies, which contribute heavily to local causes. McCain, whose wife is a beer empire heiress whose primary personal accomplishment was winning rodeo queen titles, will be hard-pressed to criticize Heinz Kerry's inherited wealth, and even if he somehow manages to do so elsewhere, it won't play well in her home town.

10. Kerry's Strong on Foreign Affairs: Most pundits put Delaware senator Joe Biden at the top of Obama's short list, but Biden has his own negatives, including a long history of, to put it kindly, misspeaking himself. Biden's an imperfect choice -- and his two main credentials (long service in D.C. and foreign policy expertise) are shared by Kerry, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Biden chairs. What's more, Kerry's knowledge of world affairs is genuine, and comes across as such: how many politicians know, just off the top of their head, when the rift between Sunni and Shia began? (Answer: 680 A.D., at the original Battle of Karbala in what's now Iraq.)

And One More: Kerry Wants Payback: Most importantly, Kerry's work on Obama's behalf in this election has exhibited a brio that we did not see in 2004 and a selflessness we would not normally expect from someone in Kerry's shoes. Forget what you think you know about John Kerry: just as John McCain 2008 is a completely different man than John McCain 2000, John Kerry 2008 is a different creature than the one who narrowly lost the Presidency in 2004.

Mayhill has been following Kerry on the stump, off and on, for the past few weeks, and has seen a man transformed: a man infused with an energy and enthusiasm, even a lightness of spirit, that balance nicely with his unshakable gravitas. It may be a desire to return the favors Karl Rove and the Swiftboaters dealt him in 2004; it may be that Kerry is sincerely impressed and energized by the prospect of an Obama Camelot. We think it's both. Whatever is inspiring Kerry lately, however, it's indisputable that Kerry is inspired. And some inspiration is what Barack Obama needs -- and may well have chosen to add to his ticket.