Monday, August 20, 2007

Think Again: A blog at the NY Times by Stanley Fish

It’s time to start thinking seriously about Hillary Clinton’s running mate. I know that the first primary is six months away (although the date keeps creeping backwards) and the conventions more than a year away, but this one is over before it’s over. Clinton’s national poll numbers are very high and if they hit 50 percent fence-sitters will climb down and join her ranks. John Edwards isn’t going to catch fire, and Barak Obama has already caught all the fire he is able to ignite. With every day, the small possibility that Al Gore will join the race gets smaller. As for the other candidates, they are either running for vice president or just having a good time. To be sure, polls in Iowa and New Hampshire show a close contest, but I predict that as the time for actually voting gets closer, Clinton will pull away in those states, too, and the landslide will begin.

So the only remaining big question is, Who should her running mate be? Answering that question requires thinking in two contexts – personal profile and electoral college.

Hillary Clinton is a middle-aged, white woman Protestant senator from the Northeast. Every identifying mark in this long list of personal attributes bears a significance for her choice. First of all, her running mate can’t be a woman. But, on the other hand, he does have to be white, or at least kind of white. The pundits keep wondering whether the country is ready for a woman president or a black president; it sure isn’t ready for a woman and a black on the same ticket. Nor is it ready for a woman and a Jew, which rules out Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania. On the age question, there is more flexibility. She is neither young nor old, so her running mate could be either as long as the age difference wasn’t egregious.

He probably shouldn’t be a senator. The rap against senators is that they belong to a debating society and haven’t had much experience administering things. One senator on a ticket is more than enough, although a senator who was once a governor would be O.K. Sitting governors are better. Members of the House of Representatives have the same liability as do senators, and in addition they usually have little national name recognition.

Then there’s geography. Senator Clinton was brought up in Illinois and lived for a long time in Arkansas, but she has to stick with her New York identification, if only because she had to do so much to secure it. Therefore no other Northeasterner need apply, which eliminates Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut. That leaves the West, the South, the Southwest, the Northwest, and the Midwest. That seems to be a lot of space to roam around in, but not really, and it is here that we get to the electoral college.

Although the conventional wisdom is that even if Senator Clinton wins the nomination, she couldn’t win the general election, a victory in the electoral college is not all that hard to imagine. Just do the numbers. Start by giving her New York and California, then add all of New England plus Delaware, Maryland and D.C. Throw in one or two states in the Northwest (Oregon or Washington), and either Colorado or New Mexico in the Southwest. She loses the South, except for Louisiana where the Bush administration is in bad odor, and, perhaps, Arkansas, if her husband does a lot of work. She wins Hawaii, loses Alaska.

This leaves us where we are always left on election day – watching Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the Midwestern states, and Florida. Clinton probably takes Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and loses Kansas and Indiana. Illinois is a lock. Michigan and Wisconsin lean in her direction. Missouri probably goes Republican. Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio are up for grabs, with Ohio the prize. Florida is Florida.

So what she needs is a governor or former governor who can tip the balance in a fairly large state that could go either way, ideally someone from Ohio or Florida. If we go strictly by this criterion, Clinton’s man is Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio; but he’s been in office for less than a year and his constituents probably wouldn’t be happy if he were to forsake them for a national stage. There’s no one in Florida, so it’s time to start looking elsewhere for someone who could help and won’t hurt. Mark Warner, the former governor of Virginia, was the political rage for a month or two and is regarded as a moderate; he could be repackaged by the right marketing campaign. He might even bring Virginia with him.

Gov. Mike Easley of North Carolina is a Democrat who has run ahead of his party in two elections. However, he is not well known outside the region and it is a question as to whether he could deliver his own state. It is doubtful that John Edwards could either. It is also unlikely that he will be asked, and even less likely that he would accept, although he would be smart to do so. (How else is he going to get another chance?)

Looking to the Midwest, Wisconsin has a democratic governor, Jim Doyle, a veteran (some might say shopworn) politician who was formerly an attorney general and has two adopted African American sons. He also has been caught accepting Green Bay Packer tickets, a minor infraction for which he was fined $300, but enough, perhaps to taint him. Evan Bayh is a popular senator from Indiana who was also a popular governor. He has tested the presidential waters before; and would know what he was in for.

And then there’s Bill Richardson, two-term governor of New Mexico, former congressman. former Ambassador to the United Nations, former Secretary of Energy, three quarters Mexican, but with a reassuringly Anglo-Saxon name. Sounds ideal, even though his state has only five electoral votes and he is an unpolished speaker.

Just how unpolished was demonstrated on August 9 at a gay issues forum when the singer Melissa Etheridge sandbagged him by asking, “Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?” He blurted out “choice” and Etheridge gave him a second chance. He didn’t do any better, declaring, “I’m not a scientist,” and then going on for a while about “human decency.”

What he should have said – and later did say in a statement issued by his campaign – is that the answers science may give to Etheridges’s question are irrelevant to the political issue of rights which should be granted equally to gays and lesbians no matter what road brought them to that self-identification. In short, he should have repudiated the assumption informing Etheridge’s question, the assumption that political policy should follow science. ( Of course decoupling politics and science can lead to the opposite conclusion: anti-gay activists could say that independently of whether homosexual behavior is chosen or determined by biology, it is immoral and should not be validated by law.)

Obviously Richardson was ill prepared by his campaign staff for this entirely predictable moment, but should he become the vice presidential candidate, the Clinton staff will equip him with a set of evasions for every occasion. This was a stumble, but it is not fatal, at least not to his vice-presidential ambitions.

So there’s the list – Warner, Bayh, Easley, Richardson, maybe Doyle. No one who sets the pulses racing, but no one, at least on the evidence so far, who would be a total mistake. The mistake would be if Senator Clinton decided to get creative and adventurous, but on the record there seems to be little danger of that.

I mean that as a compliment. Even conservative commentators have been saying that she is running a model campaign – disciplined, prepared, thoughtful, calm, on message. One might call it presidential, which is a good reason, among many others, to elect her president.


Dwight said...

I've long thought that Richardson was really the only candidate--pretty much following Fish's arguments. His negatives can be managed, and his positives as a VP are pretty high.

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