Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama-Nelson '08?

Guest Perspective/Rich Rubino

If Barack Obama is awarded the Democratic presidential nomination, his first major decision will be the selection of a vice presidential running mate. While some may advise Obama to seek Hillary Clinton for that post, Obama may want to consider a broader array of strategic options. He should focus his attention on how he can leverage his quest for the White House by choosing a running mate who can add something of significance to the ticket. In short, his choice of a vice-presidential running mate should be geared solely toward achieving the very best competitive positioning possible.

Sen. Obama will have a litany of names to consider for his running mate. These will include the more conventional choices like Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark, to a few dark horses such as N.C. Gov. Mike Easley and Tenn. Gov. Phil Bredesen. You may even hear some unconventional choices like the former Commander in Chief of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Anthony Zinni, or Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, both vociferous critics of the Iraq war.

As history dictates, the most important asset for a potential running mate is that he or she not become an issue in the campaign. For example, in 1968, when the Republican nominee Richard Nixon chose the little known Governor of Maryland, Spiro Agnew, the reaction from political observers was: “Spiro Who?” Agnew then showed his inexperience when he uttered the following comment about inner cities, “If you've seen one slum, you've seen them all.'' The campaign of Nixon’s opponent, then Vice President Hubert Humphrey, exploited Agnew’s lack of experience and credibility, running an advertisement on television with a banner reading “Agnew for Vice President” with laughter in the background. The ad ending with the punch-line: “This would be funny if it weren’t so serious.”

Beyond not impairing a campaign, the most important attribute for a vice presidential nominee is that he/she be viewed by the electorate as a credible person with requisite experience should he/she be forced to assume the Office of President at a moments notice. Beyond that, it helps that the nominee hails from an electorally critical region or state. Recent history however reveals this to be less of a factor. Perhaps the last Vice-Presidential contestant to have carried his state for the ticket was then Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson. The Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy carried the lone star state by less than 50,000 votes.

In many respects, Johnson was the ideal nominee in that he served the ticket in a micro sense by bringing to the ticket his enormous popularity in his home state of Texas. He garnered 85% of the vote in his re-election bid in 1954. In addition, he helped the ticket in the macro sense as well. Johnson, the Senate Majority leader, brought 24 years of Congressional service, including almost six years as the Senate Majority Leader. While many questioned Kennedy’s youth and lack of government experience, having a seasoned government official in Johnson on the ticket helped to inoculate him from that criticism. Moreover, Johnson was a rare moderate in a polarized Democratic Party Senate Caucus. With the likes of liberals such as Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey on one end and Southern Conservatives such as Mississippi Sen. James Eastland on the other end, Johnson was palatable to both factions of the party.

Sen. Obama faces a similar predicament to then Mass. Sen. Kennedy. Obama is actually more of a political neophyte than Kennedy, having just been elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004 (following eight years in the Illinois State Senate). Given this dearth of experience, I would suggest that the best candidate for Obama to choose as his running mate is Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida. Like Johnson, Sen. Nelson can serve a micro purpose in that he represents arguably the most important state in the electoral union, Florida, a political combat zone. No Republican has won the Presidency without carrying the Sunshine state since 1924, when the solid south was solidly Democratic. It is hard to envisage a scenario in which a Republican wins the presidency without garnering Florida’s critical 27 electoral votes. As the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election instructs us, Florida is “ground zero” in modern presidential politics.

Nelson has shown his electoral bona fides in Florida, having been re-elected in 2006 with 60 percent of the vote. In addition, from 1979 to 1991, Mr. Nelson won five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from a Congressional district which includes Brevard County, not known as a citadel of liberalism. In fact, Brevard County gave 57 percent of its votes to President Bush in the 2004 general election while awarding their favorite son, Senator Nelson, with 59 percent of the vote in 2006. While a vice-presidential candidate rarely carries a state for a ticket, in a state as important and closely divided as Florida, this could be the exception. One must wonder, had Al Gore chosen Florida’s then popular Sen. Bob Graham as his running-mate in 2000, if the American people would have gotten acquainted with hanging Chads, pregnant Chads, or bulging Chads.

Furthermore, Nelson’s presence on the ticket would be a major asset to the Obama candidacy at the macro level. Nelson’s experience would complement Obama’s charisma. Nelson brings gravitas to the ticket in the critical area of national security. He is a member of both the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees. Moreover, the national press and the American people would be intrigued and fascinated when they learn that Senator Nelson, while a member of the House of Representatives, served aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia as a Pay Load Specialist, orbiting the earth for six days.

From a strategic standpoint, the choice of Sen. Nelson would likely put Sen. McCain on the defensive. Knowing how pivotal Florida is to his electoral chances, the Arizonan might be forced to choose a running-mate from this battleground state simply to neutralize Nelson’s presence in the race.

Should Sen. McCain be channeled into looking to Florida for a running-mate, he would find only two viable candidates: current Florida Gov. Charles Christ and his predecessor Jeb Bush. Sen. Mel Martinez might also be a good choice but he is not constitutionally eligible because he was not born a U.S. citizen.

Charles Christ is immensely popular in Florida, sporting approval ratings exceeding 70 percent. He has shown that his electoral prowess can expand beyond his own election in that his endorsement of Sen. McCain in the recent Florida Republican Primary is widely credited in playing a significant part in the Senator’s victory there. Indeed, Christ’s presence on the ticket would somewhat neutralize that of Nelson’s. On the downside, Christ has a thin political resume, at least on a national level.

Nationally, the choice of Christ by McCain would be seen largely as an act of pure political expediency. Sen. McCain would be seen as choosing a running mate more for electoral reasons than for who is best for the job. While most would concede that Christ has been a successful Governor in his short tenure (elected in 2006), the McCain campaign would have a difficult time making the case that Christ has the requisite qualifications to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency. In addition to lacking foreign policy experience, the highest political height Christ reached prior to becoming Governor was Attorney General of Florida.

Furthermore, adding Christ to the ticket would likely inflame the Conservative inteligencia who are luke-warm toward Sen. McCain’s candidacy already. As a governor, Christ has not governed as an ideologue but as a problem-solver working across party lines. Some of his positions will not sit well with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Sean Hannity. For example, Gov. Christ said in a December press conference that he is a “live and let live kind of a guy,” and although he supports a proposed Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (slated to be voted on by the electorate this November), Christ insists: “It’s not an issue that moves me.”

In addition, many conservatives are furious that, as Attorney General, Christ chose not to intervene in the Terry Schiavo situation. Christ has also left the conservative reservation on climate change, and has establishing ambitious targets for reducing Florida's greenhouse-gas emissions by 10 percent by 2012. Additionally, Christ advocates stricter vehicle-emissions regulations.

The only other realistic option for McCain within Florida would be to pick Jeb Bush who served as the state’s chief executive for the eight years prior to Gov. Christ’s term. Bush left office with a job approval rating exceeding 60 percent. Accordingly, the choice of Jeb Bush would do much to neutralize Obama’s choice of Nelson in the Sunshine state. Unfortunately for Jeb, however, his last name happens to be “Bush.” His brother George W. Bush is presently suffering from anemic approval ratings in the low 30’s. Bush fatigue would likely hinder Jeb Bush. Besides, the choice of a Bush would be hard for McCain to explain. In addition, Florida Democrats, still enraged by the role the former Florida Governor played in the 2000 election, would likely be galvanized to work hard to defeat McCain.

Finally, there is a real similitude between Kennedy’s pick of Johnson and Obama’s potential choice of Sen. Nelson. Like LBJ, Nelson has positioned himself in the center of the Democratic Party, and the choice of Nelson would likely be palatable to moderates, while at the same time not alienating the liberal constituency that has come to see Obama as their champion. For example, while Nelson voted for the authorization of funding for the use of military force against Iraq in 2002, he has since become a critic of solving the conflict with military might, having voted against President Bush’s troop surge plan while favoring instead a phased redeployment of U.S. troops. Nelson favors a political solution dividing the country in a tri-partite solution, Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center, and Shiites in the south.

Bill Nelson is pro-choice, yet favors notifying parents of minors who seek out-of-state abortions. Nelson voted for the confirmation of President Bush’s choice for Chief Justice John Roberts, yet voted against his choice of Samuel Alito. He supports a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, while at the same time voting to construct a fence along the Mexican border and establishing English as America’s official language. Nelson would be a consensus choice, palatable as a Vice President and potential air-apparent to Obama to both liberals and conservatives within the Democratic Party. In addition, Nelson is a proven vote-getter in Florida, which has become a very important swing state that can change the course of a national election. Nelson also has foreign policy gravitas.

And last but not least is the fact that every winning presidential Democratic ticket since 1944 has had at least one southerner. An Obama-Nelson ticket would be a formidable strategic force. Let the games begin!

No comments: