Are Kaine and Bayh the best Obama can do?

The two centrist pols get more attention as potential veep picks, while Clinton's chances reportedly fade.

Published July 29, 2008 8:50PM (EDT)

Barack Obama is said to be edging closer to picking a running mate, and this week there's a miniboom behind the potential candidacies of Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana. Tom Schaller runs it all down here. Obama visited veep vetter Eric Holder's office for a second time in two days, raising the volume on speculation about his coming pick.

Both men's prominence in the veepstakes reflects an ancient vision of the ideal running mate: that he can help the candidate pull in a swing state he couldn't win on his own. Of course, that hasn't worked since John F. Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson in 1960 and carried Texas, and it's not clear it will work now with either Bayh or Kaine on the ticket. Unlike Schaller, I'm not a fan of either man's running with Obama. It's clear they would provide balance in one way: Where Obama is charismatic and inspiring, they're both fairly charisma-free, so there would be no dangerous charisma overload when they appeared together Aug. 28 at Invesco Field in Denver. Beyond that, I don't see their appeal.

Kaine offers Obama no foreign policy experience -- and little experience generally. I don't see how a first-term senator picks a first-term governor, with no national reputation, as his running mate. By contrast, Bayh is viewed as having foreign policy credentials, but to my mind, they're mostly bad. I vividly remember his heinous argument for why Democrats had to support the Iraq war in October 2002: "The majority of the American people tend to trust the Republican Party more on issues involving national security and defense than they do the Democratic Party," he told Fox News back then. "We need to work to improve our image on that score by taking a more aggressive posture with regard to Iraq, empowering the president." That showed good judgment. I'm sure Hillary Clinton, among other Democrats, is sorry she listened to Bayh. No matter whom Obama picks, there will be plenty of chances for reporters to scour the archives and find "gotcha" quotes, in which he or she disagreed with the Democratic nominee, but Iraq is a particularly troublesome example.

Kaine creates comparable problems for Obama with the Democratic base when it comes to the issue of abortion. A Roman Catholic, he is antiabortion, though he says he prefers expanding women's access to contraception and healthcare over criminalizing them and their doctors (though he does support a late-term abortion ban, as does Bayh). Given that one of Obama's top arguments to lure fence-sitting female Hillary Clinton supporters has been John McCain's antichoice stance, both Kaine and Bayh would seem to hurt Obama on that score.

Like a lot of Democrats, I was surprised and sorry to read Adam Nagourney's piece in the New York Times today suggesting that Clinton herself is not a serious V.P. candidate. I wasn't sold on her V.P. candidacy when she left the race, but given that so many high-powered Democrats once thought to be on Obama's list have taken themselves off in recent weeks, including Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, she is one of the few remaining Democrats with star power. And if Obama is looking for a wan Clinton surrogate like Bayh to bring in Clinton voters, why not look at Clinton herself?

I know there are a lot of answers to that question, some of them excellent, and I've never been convinced Clinton was a perfect choice. But as the list dwindles down to a lackluster few, I have found myself hoping Obama takes her more seriously. I can't imagine another V.P. choice on the list commonly mentioned that would genuinely energize voters and create excitement. (It could also energize conservative voters -- one reason it might not occur.) I also worry that the seeming lack of respect evident in the Nagourney piece -- she wasn't asked to submit any documentation, and told associates she doesn't think she is being seriously considered -- could still hurt Obama. I know it's fun and fashionable on the left to deride still-skeptical Clinton supporters as post-menopausal PUMAs, but Obama can't afford to write off too many Democratic subgroups.

If an Obama-Clinton ticket is not to be, I think I'd prefer Sen. Joe Biden to Kaine, Bayh or even Kathleen Sebelius, another appealing red-state moderate with no foreign policy credentials or national profile. Biden grew on me over the course of the Democratic campaign, with his foreign policy knowledge and his funny, self-deprecating efforts to erase his reputation for talking too much. In a year with such great Democratic presidential candidates, I find the shortlist of vice-presidential picks a letdown.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Evan Bayh D-ind.