By Ari Holtz
As we plod through our mid-summer election malaise, we’re beaten down by meaningless mini-story after banal escapade. Cindy McCain’s cookie recipe. Barack Obama’s fist bump. Michelle Obama on The View. Jesse Jackson’s threats of castration. Phil Gramm’s condescension. Boring. Relatively meaningless. Tiresome. To get us through this election melancholy, it is necessary to seek out issues of actual import where we can be engaged, stimulated and rejuvenated.
Where might such a topic lie? In rumors of mistresses? Drug use? Actual policy proposals on Middle East peace, the Afghan war or the crumbling financial institutions of our land?
We can only wish.
Still relevant and intriguing, though, is what the mainstream media, demonstrating their endless supply of wit and wordsmithing, call the veepstakes. Who will McCain and Obama pick to be their running mates? Mitt Romney and Dick Gephardt? Tim Pawlenty and Hillary Clinton? Chuck Norris and Ben Affleck? Before one can truly sort through this, um, amazing and talented group of folks, it’s important to consider the various strategies for picking the man or woman who could be one heartbeat or choked-on pretzel away from the presidency.
Like many things, there are two schools of thought on how to pick a vice president. Just as their is Ginger and Mary Ann, Kobe and Shaq, Simon and Paula, and LC and Heidi, there is the VP-selection strategy of balance and that of consistency. With balance, a candidate strives to compliment him or herself with a VP who fills in a gap. This can be a Northerner picking a Southerner, a young individual picking an experienced one, a foreign policy neophyte selecting a military man, or a moderate picking an ideologue.
The strategy of consistency, on the other hand, aims to hammer home a message and reinforce a theme. A youthful, energetic candidate picks a cohort to illustrate the fresh nature of his or her candidacy. An economic expert selects a similar VP to emphasize a promise of financial proficiency. A statesman picks a chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to show that their potential future administration will have no trouble dealing with world affairs.
The election of 1992 illustrates these contrasting styles perfectly. George H.W. Bush kept Dan Quayle on his ticket while Bill Clinton selected Al Gore. Quayle, a youthful Senator from Indiana, had been chosen to balance Bush’s age and Washington-insider image. Quayle was supposed to fill in for some of Bush’s deficits. Clinton, conversely, went with the strategy of consistency, picking a fellow baby boomer, also from the South, also a moderate Democrat. Doing so reinforced Clinton’s campaign meme of youthful, energetic change.
In the case of the 1992 election, we know which strategy came out victorious.
So, what are McCain and Obama to do? Conventional wisdom has McCain going for balance. He is a deeply flawed candidate, disliked by much of the Republican base and 70-years-old in a change election. The thought is that he needs a youthful VP to compliment his advanced age and be a potential successor. A youthful VP candidate with conservative bona fides would be, within this strategy, ideal.
Further, because McCain doesn’t have much of an overarching campaign theme – is it experience or military background or being the anti-Obama – it is hard for him to choose the strategy of consistency. What, exactly, would he be reinforcing?
Obama, unlike McCain, has an exceedingly clear campaign theme – change. This is why he should resist the temptation to strive for balance – in experience, age or military/foreign policy credibility – in place of driving home youth, freshness and turning the page on the Bush years. Democratic stalwarts like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or Bill Richardson, all fine and talented individuals, would taint Obama’s ownership of change and newness.
Obama needs someone like Gov. Tim Kaine. Kaine won the Virginia governorship much like his predecessor, Mark Warner, by crossing party barriers to appeal to independents and Republicans. He, like Warner and Obama, is post-partisan, a politician of the present and future, not the past. An Obama-Kaine ticket would send a clear message – a new administration, a new generation, a new approach to governance is here and ready to lead.
Barack Obama is a brand, a movement, a theme. This is his biggest strength. He would do well to keep it pure. Not everyone will want an administration of change, but even fewer will want one of confused identity.