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Obama's Vice-President

A Commentary By Gerald M. Pomper

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Virginia Senator James Webb should be the Democratic candidate for vice-president.

Senator Barack Obama is close to winning the Democratic nomination for president. His overwhelming victory in North Carolina and virtual tie in Indiana, with a forthcoming tide of superdelegates, will bring him within a hundred votes of the nomination. Obama has victory in sight, unless the iron laws of arithmetic are repealed by superdelegates meeting in "smoke-filled rooms" in an age of "no smoking" edicts in air-conditioned retreats.

Obama must soon turn to the choice of a running mate. The best choice, in my opinion, would be Senator Webb. To make the case, let's first dispose of two contrary arguments.

The first is that party tickets need to be balanced geographically, with each of the running mates bringing in their home states from different regions. The reality is that almost no voters are swayed when a native son is in second place on the ticket. Jack Kemp could not carry New York for the Republicans in 1996, just as John Edwards could not bring North Carolina into the Democratic fold in 2004.

In 2008, the outworn argument for electoral balance comes in a new form: advocacy of Hillary Clinton as Obama's running mate. Some politicians see this as the Democratic "dream ticket," combining the distinct appeals the two candidates showed in the party primaries. If elected, that ticket would bring a President Obama sniping from his vice-president and the anguish of the likely intrusive pretensions of Bill Clinton as a self-designated "co-president." But In cold-hearted political terms the combination doesn't make sense.

Senator Clinton would not, in fact, bring that much to the ticket. Her strongest appeal obviously is to women. But women are likely to vote predominantly Democratic in any case, as they have for the past quarter of a century. Would women facing a recession and mounting health costs really support John McCain's tax cuts for the wealthy and his ineffective health program? Would the most outspoken feminists really endorse a candidate pledged to appoint the Supreme Court Justices who would reverse Roe v. Wade ?

The real "gender gap" is not caused by women, but by men. The Democrats have been losing presidential elections because men have left their ranks in greater numbers than women have come to support the party. By my calculations, the effect of these movements in 2000 was a net gain of four million votes for Bush over Gore, far more important in his "victory" than the Florida vote manipulations. In 2004, Bush won majorities among both white men and white women, with white men again decisive, 62 percent voting for the President.

An Obama-Clinton ticket would be historic in overturning barriers of race and gender. But confronting the electorate with both a black and a woman candidate at the same time might well try its patience beyond the limits of well-meaning tolerance. It is simply realistic, even if not ennobling, to remember that white males constitute forty percent of the electorate, and that they too may want to identify with some candidate. Of course there is such a candidate in the race -- Republican John McCain. Democrats need to counter his appeal.

The true contribution of a running mate is what the selection signals about the presidential candidate. In these terms, the most successful recent vice-presidential choice -- in electoral terms -- was George W. Bush's selection of Dick Cheney. Bush faced doubts about his foreign policy competence. Cheney, with vast experience and service in two stints as Secretary of Defense, seemingly certified Bush's competence.

Webb fits Obama's true needs. The Illinois Senator's greatest deficiency is his lack of experience in foreign policy and military security. Clinton has made that her chief point of attack -- as in the now-classic "3 A.M. telephone" ad -- and this area is obviously McCain's greatest strength. There is no way for Obama to match McCain, even if he could manufacture some "sniper fire," but the right running mate could give him a measure of credibility, in much the same way as Cheney helped Bush.

Webb is a former Navy officer and Vietnam veteran (exactly matching McCain), and a former Secretary of the Navy bringing directly relevant executive experience. He won four military medals in Vietnam, and was wounded twice, a record that, along with awards from the American Legion and VFW, would repel attacks by SwiftBoaters. His term at the Pentagon came under Ronald Reagan, when Webb was a Republican, an advantage in Obama's effort to achieve a new electoral coalition. With this military background, he reinforces the Democrats' case against the Iraqi intervention, a position he has articulated from the beginning of the war and with particular force, including a direct confrontation with President Bush at a White House reception. As a novelist, non-fiction author and Emmy-winning television reporter, he also shows intellectual distinction.

Webb also would bring specific political advantages to the Democratic ticket. His rural roots, vigorous language and championing of working class values would compensate for Obama's evident weaknesses among these voters. Webb provides a populist platform on corporate regulation, trade, taxation and health care that would further extend the party's appeal to its lower-income base. Born in Missouri, educated in Nebraska, California and the Naval Academy in Maryland, he encapsulates a national electoral appeal. Finally, to the limited extent that state residence matters, he would help to switch Virginia into the Democratic column for the first election since 1964.

Webb may have some deficiencies as a candidate, related to sexist writings done thirty years ago and his occasional indelicate language. He, and Obama, would need to make special efforts to clear those hurdles to bring women voters back into the Democratic fold. They can succeed by emphasizing the evident differences between them and McCain on both economic and social policies, as well as the Iraq war.

On his own, we can expect Webb to outshine any of the pallid Republicans being considered for the McCain ticket, to close the party's "security gap," and to provide the necessary appeal to white male voters. For Senator Obama, Webb's selection would show both audacity and hope.

Gerald Pomper is the Board of Governors Professor of Political Science (Emeritus) at Rutgers University. He has written extensively on U.S. politics, including seven quadrennial books on presidential elections since 1976.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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