CAMPAIGN OUTSIDER The wrong vice
By Muhammad Cohen
HONG KONG - Thursday night's vice presidential debate promises fascinating
contrasts. Democratic candidate Joe Biden has vast depths of knowledge and
experience that he's anxious to share but he can't stick to the script.
Republican Sarah Palin doesn't know anything that's not on her script, but at
her best she delivers her lines with conviction and pride in her righteous
Surprisingly, at least one poll on the debate showed the American public has
virtually even expectations for the two candidates. Perhaps that's because
what's relevant in Biden versus Palin isn't wisdom versus ignorance, male
versus female, can't shut up
versus nothing to say, or Washington versus Northern Exposure. In the election,
Mr Know-it-all and Miss Congeniality is an entertaining sideshow, nothing more.
The candidates in the hot seat in St Louis on Thursday night aren't the ones
listed second on the ticket, but the ones at the top. Voters can't just select
the vice president they like best - if they could, both presidents Bush would
have had Democratic vice presidents - but they vote for the president and get
the vice for free. Don't assess which nominee would make the best vice
president, but which presidential nominee chose the best running mate and the
clues that selection provides about his would-be presidency.
Unless she completely self-destructs in the debate (and the Katie Couric
interview last week showed the potential for it) or along the campaign trail
over the next five weeks, Sarah Palin may have been the best possible choice
for John McCain. There's no doubt that Biden was not the best choice for Barack
Palin plugged a key political hole for McCain with evangelical voters,
energizing that important element of the Republican base. She also got some
undecided women voters to take a look at the ticket from a new perspective.
More importantly, she let the campaign create a new narrative of running
against Washington. Palin was a bold tactical choice that seems to have
Properly instructed, Palin could perform the vice president's sole enumerated
duty of breaking ties in the senate, but she has neither the experience nor the
depth to serve as president. Of course, that's true of the current occupant of
the White House, and he's soldiered through eight, albeit disastrous, years.
For those who contend the choice of Palin was irresponsible, McCain has a
two-part answer. First, he's fine, healthy as a horse, so she won't have to be
president. And if McCain dies in office ... he'll be dead and couldn't care
less what happens.
For campaign purposes, choosing a George W Bush Light vice president actually
helped the McCain campaign distract voters from the unpopular incumbent and the
mess his administration has made of the country. Palin was a lightning rod that
attracted all the attention, at least for a couple of weeks. Every day the
conversation focused on Wasilla and unwed motherhood instead of Waziristan and
unemployment was a good day for McCain.
It's hard to pinpoint what Biden has done for Obama's campaign. The Illinois
senator was no less calculating than McCain about his choice of running mate.
Obama wanted a vice president with foreign policy and national security
credentials to close his perceived gap in that area with McCain. Obama also
sought to reach out to groups that eluded him in the primaries, blue collar
voters and Catholics. The campaign reasoned that ticking those boxes was worth
the risk of Biden's tendency to let his mouth run, often ahead of his brain.
But Biden wasn't Obama's best choice. His best choice wasn't Hillary Clinton
either. Anyone whose heartbeat stands between a Clinton and the presidency
would need a full-time food taster, plus an impeachment-proof majority in the
senate, preferably family members and direct political dependents. While Obama
needs Clinton's voters - political anthropologists will someday unravel how the
far right's poster child for the far left morphed into the Joan of Arc for
Ronald Reagan Democrats (hint: the mystery lies more with the far right than
with Hillary) - he doesn't need her family baggage.
Obama had a better vice presidential choice than Biden or Clinton among his
defeated Democratic primary rivals. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has
Biden's same brand of blue collar appeal, he's also a Catholic, and as a bonus
he's Hispanic, the fastest growing major voting group in the US, all in a
package that while just a few years younger than Biden (nearly 61 versus 65)
looks a couple decades fresher, with or without the beard.
Richardson, as his short-lived presidential campaign's initial TV spot pointed
out, has broad public service experience. A congressman from New Mexico from
1983-97, he chaired the House Hispanic Caucus and made a name in Native
American affairs and foreign relations, including negotiating face-to-face with
Saddam Hussein to release two American hostages in Iraq. From mid-1997,
Richardson served 20 months as ambassador to the United Nations, then Bill
Clinton put him in his cabinet as energy secretary in 1998.
Bill to fill
After the Clinton administration, Richardson was elected New Mexico governor in
2002. He's received accolades across party and ideological lines for his fiscal
stewardship while finding innovative funding schemes for major infrastructure
projects, including a commuter rail line. As governor, he's also continued his
foreign policy work. The Bush White House has assigned Richardson to nuclear
talks with North Korean officials and appointed him as a special envoy to Latin
America for trade and other matters. Richardson also brokered a failed
ceasefire in Darfur.
As Obama's running mate, Richardson would have brought foreign policy expertise
without Biden's exclusively inside the Beltway resume, bolstering Obama's
message of change. Richardson would have also brought executive experience
Obama lacks. He'd also expand the geographical scope of the ticket into the
west, where the Obama campaign at least once envisioned several targets of
electoral opportunity. Additionally, Richardson's a much more disciplined and
engaging speaker than Biden.
It's hard to imagine why Obama chose Biden instead of Richardson. Maybe Obama
considered it unwise to put two minority members on the same ticket. But bigots
aren't going to swing to Obama because he's running with a white guy. After
Richardson endorsed Obama in March, Clinton ally James Carville likened him to
Judas to reporters and savaged Richardson on television. Perhaps it was all
personal, but Carville likely spoke for the Clintons. It's possible that the
Clintons put out word that they wouldn't embrace an Obama-Richardson ticket.
But at some point, it ought to dawn on Obama that, win or lose in November, the
Clintons and the Democratic Party need Obama more than Obama needs them.
Whatever his reasons, in choosing Biden, Obama was timid, far too timid.
Especially if you're the candidate of change, playing it safe is a losing
formula. So is running scared. We'd learn a lot about Obama if we knew what
he's afraid of.
In choosing Palin, McCain was bold. The selection told voters that he's
completely cynical about the election, that he'll say and do anything to win.
The other side of being a self-proclaimed maverick is being a megalomaniac,
convinced you're the smartest guy around and whatever you do is best. If anyone
wants to dispute that, they can do it on their own time, when you don't have to
hear it. The Palin choice highlights the shoot-from-the-hip McCain full of
self-contradiction and disingenuousness, who either can't or won't acknowledge
his inconsistencies. That kind of pigheadedness might work for bombing runs
over Hanoi, but it's scary in a president.
What the vice presidential candidates say in St Louis only matters for what it
says about the candidate that chose them.
Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told America’s story to the
world as a US diplomat and is author of Hong Kong On Air (www.hongkongonair.com),
a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal,
high finance and cheap lingerie.