Mark Blumenthal | August 22, 2008
Here's a lesson: If you work in politics (a) don't try to take a vacation in August of an even numbered year and (b) if you do, leave your laptop behind. Having made both mistakes, and waiting like everyone else to see who Barack Obama has selected as his running mate, I have a reaction to the one piece of real news we got yesterday about the choice.
In interviews published in the last 24 hours, Barack Obama has implied that his choice leans toward someone who will balance him ideologically. He has decided on "somebody who's independent," he told USA Today, "somebody who can push against my preconceived notions and challenge me so we have got a robust debate in the White House."
The conventional wisdom about vice-presidential choices shifted a bit in 1992 when Bill Clinton picked Al Gore, arguably the most successful vice presidential selection of the last several decades. Gore's selection was widely viewed as reinforcing Clinton's key strengths rather than providing geographic or ideological balance. Clinton, a young, Southern centrist Democrat bucked the conventional wisdom about ticket balancing and picked another young, Southern centrist politician. The combination reinforced the central "change" message of the 1992 campaign and helped provide a huge and sustained boost to the Clinton-Gore ticket.
But if you look back, Clinton had a real need to reinforce his core "change" message. Before the 1992 Democratic convention, Clinton had net negative favorable ratings and was running behind George H.W. Bush and (at on some polls) independent candidate Ross Perot. Voters had been introduced to Clinton during the primaries through news about an alleged affair and efforts to avoid the draft while a student at Oxford and Yale. In his book, Middle Class Dreams , Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg recounts learning from his research that doubts about Clinton focused on the perception that he was a typical politician from a privileged background.
To address the perception of privilege, the Clinton campaign used the convention to emphasize the "Man from Hope" story of Clinton's modest upbringing. My sense is that the Gore selection helped counter the perception of Clinton as a younger, but otherwise typical pol. Rather than making the predictably "political" choice (an grey eminence with years of Washington experience), he picked another young Southerner (albeit one with considerable Washington experience). So in picking Gore, Clinton was, in a sense, shoring up a weakness, making that case that his election really would be a break with politics as usual.
Now consider Obama. He owns "change." Between his age, his race, his name, his unusual background, his limited time in Washington and his campaign's exceptional message discipline, Obama has no need to convince anyone that his presidency will be different or that he "really likes change." What voters doubt most is whether he is prepared to be president, and perhaps whether he is a bit too taken with the "audacity" of his own candidacy. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 22% of voters choose "arrogant and cocky" as the negative characteristic that best describes Obama.
So Obama reaches out to someone of considerable experience with whom he disagreed on the Iraq War, someone with a different political philosophy or someone with proven willingness to challenge him, he can help shore up a weakness with relatively little risk to his core brand. At least that strikes me is the logic behind the kind of pick Obama is telegraphing.