Obama veepstakes: The medal round

Obama appears unlikely to announce a running mate until the Olympics wind down. But waiting until the convention is close could be risky.

Published August 5, 2008 10:45AM (EDT)

The vice presidential rollouts in both parties were supposed to be America's leading pre-Olympic sports spectacular. But that was before Barack Obama and John McCain got caught up in a game of chicken over who would go first in filling the heartbeat-away job. Despite a flurry of over-frenzied local Indiana speculation that Obama would buy into Evan Bayh as his running mate during a Wednesday town meeting in Elkhart, nothing vice presidential appears to be happening in either party this week.

While certainty is always elusive in the vice-presidential derby, the strong suggestion from inside the Obama camp is that he will not make a move until the Olympics start winding down with the table tennis finals and the tae kwon do medal ceremony. As for McCain, he seems determined not to be the first one through the door in this Alphonse-and-Gaston routine over the vice presidency.

At first glance, it seems appealing for Obama to delay naming his veep until the Democratic delegates start arriving in Denver over the weekend of August 22 to 24. McCain advisers are even reportedly speculating that the GOP nominee could wait until the Tuesday morning of the convention (September 2) to make his announcement as a way of erasing memories of George W. Bush's scheduled Monday night speech. But such efforts at syncopated scheduling run the risk of replicating the dread Dan Quayle experience when a vice-presidential selection spontaneously combusted in the middle of a convention.

Quayle, a good-looking jejune Indiana senator better known for his low golf handicap than his intellectual depth, would have been a disastrous 1988 choice even if George H.W. Bush had unveiled him on the Fourth of July on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach. But Bush waited until a riverboat ride on the Tuesday morning of the New Orleans convention to utter the words that he would soon regret: "I am proud to have Dan Quayle at my side."

Bush's obsession with secrecy meant that Republican party leaders were not given any talking points or briefing materials about Quayle until too late. As I vividly recall, all a reporter had to do was to walk through a hotel lobby to find a half dozen stunned Senate aides eager to belittle this bizarre selection. A convention can be the Olympiad of gossip, and nothing was more lethal than thousands of reporters and Republican insiders (most of whom thought they had better credentials than Quayle) all crammed into the same space. When it turned out that Quayle had used family connections to get a safe billet in the Indiana National Guard during Vietnam ("I didn't know in 1969 that I would be in this room today," he lamely argued to justify his conduct), the Bush high command seriously debated scuttling his nomination.

What gives the Quayle quake contemporary relevance is that neither Obama nor McCain will be presiding over rubber-stamp conventions. One of the reasons the Obama campaign moved his Thursday night acceptance speech to Invesco Field is that an outdoor football stadium will mask the reality that about 48 percent of the convention delegates favored Hillary Clinton and may not be appropriately enthusiastic on camera. McCain will have to grapple with a party with the fringe on top, ranging from the unreconciled Ron Paul supporters to the onward Christian soldiers of the religious right on the alert for heresy. Even in the best circumstances, bored reporters will not have to troll very hard to find a "disgruntled delegate" willing to be quoted and appear on television.

What this means is that both conventions are potential tinderboxes if the vice-presidential selections go awry. With Hillary Clinton reportedly out of the picture, take what might happen if Obama, say, opted for the lone woman on his rumored short list, Kathleen Sebelius, the widely praised two-term governor of Kansas. If he announced this choice with fanfare well in advance of the convention, Obama probably could successfully make the case that Sebelius (who chose a former state Republican chairman as her lieutenant governor) embodies the post-partisan style of governing that he wants to bring to Washington. But a surprise Sebelius selection in Denver could prompt a remnant of hard-core Hillary supporters -- affronted that Clinton was not the woman on the ticket -- to threaten a floor fight or a walkout, which would be riveting television but risky political imagery.

The secrecy, which has surrounded the Obama vice-presidential search, is a good indication that the Illinois senator can pass the loose-lips-sink-ships threshold as president. But there is also a danger in holding information too tightly, as campaign manager David Plouffe and long-time advisor David Axelrod are apparently the only campaign insiders strategizing with Obama over his vice-presidential pick. The element of surprise has been a traditional ingredient in the veepstakes since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 made a public show of walking around the White House grounds with hawkish Connecticut Sen. Tom Dodd (Chris Dodd's father) to derail speculation that Hubert Humphrey was on the ticket. But secrecy only works if the winner of second-banana sweepstakes is someone already known to the political community like, say, Bayh and Joe Biden.

McCain is under much greater political pressure to make a bold VP choice to suggest that he is still the beloved GOP maverick of the 2000 primary campaign rather than the grumpy generic Republican of recent months. But social conservatives, who have always mistrusted McCain, will make no secret of their ire if he selects a pro-choice running mate like Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor and color-coded secretary of homeland security. And straying further out of the box by picking a business leader (Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman and Fred Smith are the rumored names) has time-bomb potential if his or her political audition is rocky, with skeptical delegates and reporters looking on.

All this leads to a counterintuitive conclusion: Deciding when you pick a vice president shapes whom you pick. By waiting until the eve of their conventions, both Obama and McCain will face nearly irresistible pressures to pick nominees who are safe, secure and a trifle soporific. There is nothing like the onset of a convention to create a groundswell for a conventional vice president.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain