Sen. Barack Obama has announced that he will make his running-mate choice known via the Internet to his supporters and media before the Democratic national convention later this month. Sen. John McCain is expected, similarly, to make his choice known before the Republican convention a few days later.
Time was when presidential nominees did not make running-mate choices until the conventions themselves. The conventions, for one thing, have become such stage-managed, made-for-TV events that the veep choice is one of the few reasons that ordinary voters would tune in.
Most prospective vice-presidential nominees hurt rather than help the presidential nominee with the electorate. You can be sure that both Obama and McCain are seeking running mates, therefore, who would not cost them votes. Sen. Hillary Clinton, for instance, would bring Obama additional support among older-women and blue-collar voters she attracted in her nominating campaign. But, overall, she would cost the Democratic ticket a percentage point or two. She also would energize Republican and some independent voters who are lukewarm about McCain but who cannot tolerate Hillary.
Some Clinton supporters have urged that Obama, as Adlai Stevenson in 1956, should leave the running-mate decision to delegates in an open floor vote. Stevenson did that to generate excitement that was lacking in his looming rerun against President Dwight Eisenhower. Sen. Estes Kefauver defeated Sen. John Kennedy in an open contest for No. 2 (which gave Kennedy a head start on his 1960 presidential-nominating campaign). Such an open contest now would no doubt result in Clinton's nomination as running mate. But Obama will want to reserve that decision for himself — which may be one reason he will announce the decision before the convention begins.
Some of the names floated by both the Obama and McCain camps are of younger, relatively little known congressional and state-level figures who, no doubt, would not distract attention from the presidential nominees themselves and/or polarize voters. But these are difficult times. Voters will be watching, most of all, to see if the presidential candidates choose as their running mates persons who, on short notice, could step in as president if required to do so.
Obama, relatively inexperienced in foreign affairs, needs a running mate who has that experience and whose age and track record would reassure voters. Democrats with that experience include Sen. Chris Dodd and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Sen. Joe Biden is a senior figure on foreign affairs in the party but is a notorious hip-shooter who could make a politically fatal statement at any time. The ideal running mate, on a basis of qualification and experience, would be former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former chair of the House Foreign Affairs and Joint Economic committees and co-chair of the 9/11 commission. He is a wise person of high integrity. But he is older than McCain and might be seen as lacking vigor.
McCain is weak on domestic and economic policy. The strongest Republican to bring strengths in those areas would be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who also appeals to moderate and independent voters. Sen. Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, has campaigned often at McCain's side and obviously enjoys his confidence. He, too, is a senior figure.
Other names floated by both campaigns come across as too political and not necessarily serious. Watch these first decisions. A bad or hasty choice — a Sen. Tom Eagleton, Gov. Spiro Agnew, Sen. Dan Quayle or Dick Cheney — could give us an early signal regarding the candidates' judgments and priorities.
Footnote on John Edwards: Supporters of Sen. Clinton have observed publicly that she might have won the Democratic nomination this year had former Sen. John Edwards not been on the ballot. It is indeed true that he pulled labor and middle-American votes that might otherwise have gone to Clinton. On the other hand, these would-have / could-have arguments are meaningless after the fact.
The less said about Edwards, at this point, the better. His own description of himself as narcissistic and out-of-control serves as the best explanation for his recently disclosed affair, lies about the affair, and attempted coverup of the matter. Edwards is now past tense. Period. His wife Elizabeth is a person of higher quality and integrity.