A Convention and a Running Mate Unlike Any Other

Posted September 2, 2008 at 4:09pm

Vice presidential choices and party conventions are landmarks in presidential campaigns — even though we have precious few examples of running mates making any difference in the election outcomes and it has been decades since a convention actually decided anything.

[IMGCAP(1)]But both elements matter. The vice presidential choice is the first meaningful executive decision a candidate makes. The choice clearly matters in and of itself — but so does the process used to make the decision. Who is consulted? Who gets on the short list? How discreet and sensitive is the process of winnowing in and winnowing out? How thorough is the vetting process? What criteria are used to make the fields of potential choices? And what criteria drive the choice that is made? All are important questions about the judgment and style of a potential president.

Conventions, for their part, are metaphors for how the nominee could run a White House and an executive branch — how well does he put together a complex four-day set of programs, keeping his party together, keeping major players happy, getting the best messages across. If it doesn’t work, pundits and voters can rightly ask the question, “If he can’t run a convention, how could he run a government?” And conventions also are vehicles for getting particular messages across and for dealing with basic goals in a campaign.

By most reasonable standards, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and the Democrats, who went first, did very well in both cases. The process Obama developed to vet and consider potential running mates had one serious bump; his choice to head up the search team, Jim Johnson, had an embarrassment over a mortgage that pushed him to resign, leaving two people on the search team.

The two, Eric Holder and Caroline Kennedy, seemed to handle the workload just fine, with utter discretion and no leaks. The choice Obama made, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), had logic behind it and was popular with the party base, pundits and voters alike. Of course, all such choices are political; Obama shored up weaknesses on age, experience and dealing with adversaries abroad, while gaining help with blue-collar voters.

What about the convention? The Obama campaign had three core goals in Denver. The first was to unify the party, healing the bruises caused by the high-intensity battle between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and making sure that all wings, including liberals uneasy about Obama’s journey to the center in recent months, were content and pumped up when they left Denver. The second was to begin the process of getting the relatively unknown and inexperienced Obama over the bar of acceptability as a president of the United States (see last week’s column, with its discussion of the parallels with Ronald Reagan in 1980). The third was to frame the debate for the election campaign ahead.

On all three, I would rate Denver a big success. The first night was dominated by the stunning, emotional and unexpected appearance of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), and the speech by Michelle Obama. The Kennedy speech, which tore the roof off the Pepsi Center, was a big step toward party unity and liberal satisfaction. The Michelle Obama speech, which countered the image amplified by buzz on the Internet of an angry, unpatriotic black militant, was a big step toward making voters comfortable with the Obama family in the White House, while creating a narrative of two people who each grew up in working-class environments with major challenges, but in this magic country managed to succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

The choice of Biden, received with enthusiasm by partisans and observers alike, brings them closer to clearing the bar of acceptability for an Obama presidency — a mature, solid, smart person who is one of the top experts on foreign and national security policy. The speeches delivered by Sen. Clinton and former President Bill Clinton — both unequivocal expressions of support for Obama — were huge steps toward reconciliation for both Clinton delegates and her supporters around the country, and showed that the press obsession leading up to the convention with the ostensible bickering between the Obama and Clinton camps was overblown at best.

And on the final night, the speeches by Al Gore and Obama himself framed the campaign ahead, at least the one that Democrats will pursue vigorously — an America in trouble, a middle class falling behind, a working class in even deeper water, a driving need for change and a Republican candidate offering more of the same: a third Bush term.

The success of that final night at pushing the latter theme undoubtedly weighed on Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as he zeroed in on his vice presidential choice, one with time pressures much greater than normal because of the highly unusual back-to-back nature of the two conventions. McCain either had to name his running mate before Obama and before the Democratic convention, not allowing him to counter-punch by reacting to Obama’s choice, or name his pick in the three days before his own convention began.

Much reporting has suggested that McCain had all but settled on his dear friend and amanuensis Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) as of the Sunday before Denver. Lieberman not only shares McCain’s views on the threats facing America and on the course to take in Iraq, but as a Democrat would foil the notion that McCain equals George W. Bush.

But his staff talked McCain out of it, believing that the choice of Lieberman would result in a convention in turmoil, with conservative delegates walking off the floor, demonstrations and acrimony everywhere because of Lieberman’s status as a Jewish Democrat with liberal social views to complement his neo-conservative world views. By all accounts, McCain was not a happy camper over this, but he accepted the logic.

The options that remained, basically former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, were perfectly acceptable to conservatives, but they did nothing to counter the powerful message that a McCain presidency would be a third Bush term. For McCain, the desire to recapture his image as a maverick reformer overcame the conventional choice of a Republican regular. So he made the unconventional choice.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin offered four big pluses for McCain. First, she would give him buzz just as the buzz over Obama was reaching crescendo level, cutting down the Obama momentum at a key moment. Second, she would shake up the voting coalitions, offering excitement to women as another history-making candidate with particular appeal to disgruntled Clinton supporters. Third, she would create an excitement level among social conservatives, a group at best lukewarm about McCain, giving his convention and candidacy itself buzz and electricity. Fourth, her track record as a pugnacious and courageous reformer willing to take on the powerhouses in her state underscored McCain’s own credentials as a reformer.

But Palin brings many minuses as well. The process of choosing her meant throwing out all the work of vetting and carefully considering the alternatives for a spasm of impulse, picking someone McCain, incredibly, had met only once in his life, knows not at all and whose vetting was not deep or serious until right before the choice was announced. That alone reinforces a shoot-from-the-hip image that could be damaging.

Second, McCain picked someone with less experience in national politics and policy, much less international affairs, than any previous vice presidential choice, including Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle and Geraldine Ferraro. In fact, it is not even close. On her Web site, a visit to the issues section shows zero on foreign policy; it says “no issue stance yet recorded.” No passport until last year. And, of course, the choice erases the central theme of the McCain campaign, that he is ready on day one to take on the transcendental challenges of our time, the threats to America from abroad that take knowledge, experience and sophistication, while Obama is not. The idea pushed by GOP political operatives that she has vast executive experience by virtue of her time as mayor of a town of a few thousand people and a year and a half running a sparsely populated state is laughable.

Add to those the problem of the investigation Palin is facing in Alaska. Just from the facts we know, it is not pretty. Palin either directly tried to use her power and role as governor to get her ex-brother-in-law fired from his job as state trooper as he was embroiled in a nasty divorce and child custody battle with her sister, or was ignorant as her staff did the dirty work over many months.

After Palin vehemently denied that she or anyone close to her had any communications with officials over the matter, one of her closest aides was captured on audio tape invoking the name and assent of both Palin and her husband to threaten the public safety director (who was fired after he refused to ax the man). Tellingly, that aide was not fired by Palin but placed on paid administrative leave.

At minimum, it appears that Palin used the resources of government to pursue a personal vendetta, not a comforting thought when vice presidents these days deal with serious surveillance under the Patriot Act.

As I write this, the agenda for the rest of the convention remains in flux following Monday’s abbreviated session. As I got off the plane in Minneapolis on Sunday, I saw a senior House Republican and told him that I had just heard that President Bush and Vice President Cheney were not coming to the convention. He smiled and said, “So not all the news is bad.” (The latest scheduling update has Bush appearing via satellite.)

There can be advantages to having a convention turned into a rallying cry to help the victims of the hurricane. But it also means the potential loss of all the other pluses that come from the free, four-night, all-network prime-time advertising space. The stunning choice of Sarah Palin and the threat of hurricane damage make it a convention unlike any other I have seen, adding a twist to an election campaign unlike any other.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.