The 2008 Veepstakes

Though the Democratic presidential contest has turned into a longer-running show than anyone could have imagined, it's not too early to begin the quadrennial quest for the perfect Democratic vice-presidential running mate. Accordingly, the Prospect asked a group of journalists and politicos to name their picks and state their reasons, and what follows are our sketches -- please do not misconstrue them for endorsements -- of some of the most interesting possibilities. For the record, the two names our mentioners mentioned most frequently were Jim Webb (could bring Virginia and white working-class males and provide some national-security experience on either a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama ticket) and Joe Biden (provides foreign-policy bona fides and age to Obama's youth). And, for the record, the names of Govs. Sebelius and Napolitano came up as running mates for Obama, not Clinton.

Since Super Tuesday, however, the calculus on the veep question has shifted. If Obama and Clinton continue to split the vote down the middle, all logic suggests that she (if she wins the nomination) will offer him the No. 2 spot as the best way -- maybe, the only way -- to ensure that both halves of the party march off arm-in-arm to the fall wars. Should Obama win the No. 1 spot, the reverse logic is also compelling, though it's harder to see Clinton accepting the veep spot than it is Obama. Conventional wisdom hardly suggests putting a woman and a black man on the same ticket, but if she brings the base and he the independents to the polls, conventional wisdom may prove mighty foolish.

That said, the woods are full of other options, and here they are.

-- Harold Meyerson

JIM WEBB

The freshman senator from Virginia, former marine, former Reagan administration official, and accidental Democrat, Jim Webb has not only walked away from last year's gridlock on Capitol Hill politically unscathed, his reputation has been burnished by the trials. Politico named him the congressional rookie of the year, announcing in a headline, "Anti-war Webb was talk of Senate from Day 1." And he consistently tops the list of notable names in the vice-presidential sweepstakes.

The reasoning is pretty straightforward: He has the military credentials, including two Purple Hearts, and is always up for a fight. As a 62-year-old white man from a "Southern" state, he would provide any kind of balance needed to a ticket led either by a too-well-known woman senator from New York or a not-very-well-known young black senator from Illinois.

He also could, potentially, bring Democrats a red state that would be an enormously helpful addition to their electoral victory map. Virginia has been trending Democratic in recent years with strong back-to-back gubernatorial wins in 2001 and 2005 (Virginia governors are limited to a single term), and Webb's shocker of a victory in 2006 over George Allen, who was at the time one of the front-runners for the GOP presidential nomination. Webb's name on the ticket may be exactly what is needed to turn Virginia blue in November.

But Webb's past, by Democratic standards, is checkered. He was Ronald Reagan's secretary of the Navy; he expressed very public concern about the ability of women to lead men in combat, and he loves, loves, loves his guns. Not the stereotypical traditional Democrat.

Indeed, Webb's high standing may say more about the party and its search for an identity than it does about Webb himself. There is a rugged quality to Webb, and some Democrats see in him attributes they long for in their party -- conviction, strength, and a willingness to fight. The brawler in him is barely concealed, and unstated in every one of his arguments is an undercurrent of, "you wanna take it outside, asshole?" Days after he narrowly defeated Allen, Webb endeared himself to the party faithful by telling the president off at the White House.

But more importantly, Webb may also speak to and for a demographic -- the white working class -- that has more or less abandoned the Democratic Party, especially in the South. Webb believes that if the party plays its cards right, it can get those voters back the way it got him back. Webb, who openly describes himself as a Reagan Democrat, is that rare and welcomed breed. He is a Democrat who came back, and he decided to run for the Senate after watching the Bush administration botch the response to Katrina. He thinks there are more like him.

"I believe that there are a number of people who went over to the Republicans because of foreign-policy issues ... but whose natural home in terms of issues of economic fairness, social justice, and, now, also in terms of foreign policy would be in the Democratic Party," he said in a recent radio interview.

Webb talks about the return to Jacksonian democracy, and riffs about a more vigorous trade policy and its role in economic fairness for the American working class. In his 2004 book, Born Fighting, a tone poem to the Scots-Irish and their role in shaping American culture, Webb celebrates his ancestors and the poor working-class communities they established in the mountains of the border South.

American politics, he says, must turn its emphasis back to the needs of those people. "It's time to focus on what's happening to the average American worker, and we really haven't seen that at the top of either party for quite some time," he says. These populist concerns were front and center in Webb's response to Bush's State of the Union address last year:

The middle class of this country, our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table. Our workers know this, through painful experience. Our white-collar professionals are beginning to understand it, as their jobs start disappearing also. And they expect, rightly, that in this age of globalization, their government has a duty to insist that their concerns be dealt with fairly in the international marketplace.

This was not New Democrat-speak. This was no middle-of-the-road bipartisan looking for compromise. This was indeed a Democratic response, one that many see as having a lot of resonance on the 2008 national ticket.

-- Terence Samuel

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS

Remember those old Looney Tunes shorts, where Bugs Bunny would present an un-suspecting adversary with a gift-wrapped present? The adversary, charmed by this show of goodwill, would undo the bow only to have the package explode in his face. It's a good deal like being tapped for the rebuttal to the president's State of the Union address. Every year, a rising political star is given a couple of minutes of national exposure to deliver the reply, and just about every year (the recent notable exception being Sen. James Webb of Virginia), the rising star fizzles, delivering an anxious, platitudinous speech on a quiet set.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas got the opportunity this year, and like so many before her, she flubbed it. The speech was vague and fuzzy, the delivery nervous and halting. And that's a shame. Because in more natural settings, there's much to recommend Sebelius. To start, she's a female Democratic governor of a deeply Republican state. She's popular, savvy, and tested in tough electoral fights in a region where Democrats need to do better. Where Barack Obama likes to talk about change through unity, she's actually achieved it, deftly taking advantage of Kansan conservatives' extremism to convert moderate Republicans into Democrats. Her lieutenant governor, Mark Parkinson, used to be the chairman of the state Republican Party. He switched at her behest. She worked the same conversion trick with the state attorney general and many others. But she has not achieved all this by collapsing her ideals: She's anti-death penalty, pro-choice, and bravely standing against the expansion of carbon-belching coal plants in her state. And did I mention her father is a fondly remembered former governor of Ohio? She may need some time with a speech coach before she's ready for a spot on a national ticket, but hey, everyone's got weak points.

-- Ezra Klein

TED STRICKLAND

A former Methodist minister and child psychologist, Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio would bring Christian- progressive cred to the Democratic ticket. Even more compelling could be Strickland's proven appeal to swing-state Ohio voters: In his 2006 gubernatorial run, the six-term congressman won 20 percent of registered Republicans and 69 percent of independents. He has an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association.

But Strickland has a horse in this race. In the House, he was a leader in creating the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which cemented his relationship with then-first lady Hillary Clinton. Strickland endorsed Clinton in November and campaigned on her behalf in Iowa and South Carolina, arguing that Clinton has what it takes to paint Ohio blue. He hasn't always been known for circumspection. In Iowa, Strickland peeved locals -- and the Clinton campaign -- by calling the caucus process "hugely undemocratic." Another weakness could be his lack of foreign-policy bona fides. Domestic social issues, especially education, have been Strickland's focus in Ohio. Once a counselor to prison inmates, Strickland has also made criminal-justice reform a priority. He stayed and commuted several executions and introduced stricter rules for how Ohio law enforcement handles DNA evidence.

All that makes for a progressive governing record, and in the very swingiest of states, to boot. But if the Democratic presidential nominee decides to emphasize military credibility over social issues, Strickland could fall to the bottom of the V.P. short list.

-- Dana Goldstein

KEN SALAZAR

When former Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico exited the presidential race, leaving little behind except the memory of embarrassing verbal gaffes and ineffectual debate performances, he probably took his hopes for a vice-presidential nod with him. But that doesn't mean the Democratic Party won't have the opportunity to make the first nomination of a Latino to a national ticket. Some are pinning their hopes on Ken Salazar, the Mexican American first-term senator from Colorado -- a swing state the Democrats are hoping to turn from red to blue this November.

Prior to narrowly winning his 2004 senatorial election against Republican beer magnate Pete Coors, Salazar had a diverse career -- serving as Colorado's attorney general for six years, working a four-year stint as the head of Colorado's Department of Natural Resources, not to mention owning a Dairy Queen franchise and several radio stations. Salazar grew up in a ranching and farming family, and protecting Colorado's stunning natural beauty was one of the key promises in his Senate campaign. This year, he pushed for stricter environmental standards for the mining industry. But like Barack Obama (and unlike Hillary Clinton), Salazar voted in favor of the 2005 energy bill, choosing to overlook its handouts to polluting industries.

As befits a former attorney general, Salazar has made his name in the Senate primarily on issues such as judicial appointments and the fight over the Bush administration's abuse of wiretapping. A moderate, Salazar was a member of the Gang of 14, which sought to avoid Democratic filibusters of Bush's judicial nominees by ensuring Democratic senators a voice in the process. During the long Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act debates over warrantless wiretapping, Salazar supported stronger civil libertarian amendments to the proposed legislation.

If anything can keep Salazar off a V.P. short list, it might be his propensity for picking the wrong allies. Shortly after arriving in the Senate, Salazar introduced Alberto Gonzales at his confirmation hearing to be attorney general, though it was already public knowledge that Gonzales had authored reports supporting the torture of detainees. Salazar also endorsed Joe Lieberman over the anti-war Ned Lamont in the Connecticut Democratic senatorial primary of 2006. Lieberman, of course, went on to campaign on behalf of John McCain. Oops.

-- Dana Goldstein

JOE BIDEN

The Senate has its windbags, but few so windy as Joe Biden. Over the course of the 2008 campaign, however, Biden emerged as a serious national figure. He stopped making gaffes, stopped running past the red time's-up lights, and started making sense. He dominated the foreign-policy sections of the debates, angrily, passionately, and above all, confidently making the case against neoconservatism. He probably had the best line of the campaign when he said of Rudy Giuliani, "There's only three things he mentions in a sentence -- a noun, a verb, and 9-11."

Increasingly, Biden became not just a respected presence on the stage, but the only candidate making a concise case for the Democrats on international affairs. Where the other candidates responded to questions of national security with passively phrased expressions of sorrow about the regrettable policies of the Republicans, Biden responded with unadulterated contempt for the neocons who had steered the country so determinedly into a ditch. Of Bush, he said, simply, "This guy is brain dead." Then continued: "The next time I hear a Republican talk about 'us being tough on terror' -- give me a break!"

Biden's self-assuredness -- some would call it cockiness -- on foreign affairs is exactly what the Democrats need. No more passive voice. No more convoluted statements about the Bush administration's well-intentioned but poorly managed policies. In reply to the Republicans' inevitable attempt to distract from their failures and accuse the Democrats of weakness and lack of resolve, the Democratic tickets need a simple, clear voice saying what the voters already sense: "Give us a break!"

-- Ezra Klein

JANET NAPOLITANO

Arizona's governor looks and sounds a lot like the native New Yorker she is, but Janet Napolitano has lived in the Southwest since she attended high school in Albuquerque, where her father was dean of the University of New Mexico medical school. After law school, she settled in Phoenix, and in 1993 Bill Clinton tapped her as U.S. attorney for Arizona. She was elected state attorney general five years later, and then in 2002 she squeaked to a narrow victory over Rep. Matt Salmon to become governor. Four years later, she cruised to re-election with more than 60 percent of the vote. Throughout her tenure, conservative Republicans have controlled both houses of the Arizona legislature, which is the reason she's issued a record number of vetoes for an Arizona governor. Nevertheless, under her tenure spending on public services steadily increased, including a noteworthy initiative offering full-day kindergarten to families who wanted it.

On a national ticket, she'd bring an element of executive experience and "tough" prosecutorial background that the presidential contenders lack. As a U.S. attorney, she even handled a terrorism case. Three statewide wins in a red state speak to political skills that could help win structurally similar but more Democrat-friendly states in the region such as New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado. From her perch as head of the National Governor's Association, Napolitano has also gained some experience with a nationwide issue portfolio, and as a border-state politician she has extensive background in coping with the tricky politics of immigration.

-- Matthew Yglesias

BRIAN SCHWEITZER

Next to Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, a mint farmer who regularly wears jeans and bolo ties and is followed around almost everywhere by his border collie, Jag, even the most comfortable-in-their-own-skin politicians seem like wooden mannequins. Despite being outspent almost 2 to 1, Schweitzer first made headlines in 2000 by nearly upsetting Republican Sen. Conrad Burns. (Burns was ousted six years later by Democrat Jon Tester.) Schweitzer admits he never stopped running after that 2000 defeat, and by 2004 he was able to eke out a win in the governor's race on the same day George W. Bush carried the state by 20 points.

Schweitzer could put his considerable political skills to good use on the national ticket. He's quick, funny, self-effacing, authentic. A 52-year-old husband and father of three, Schweitzer also undermines a number of the cultural stereotypes about Democrats; he supports gun rights and understands sportsmen politics. His other obvious draw is regional: Picking him would reinforce Howard Dean's message in selecting Denver for the 2008 Democratic National Convention -- that the Democrats are taking voters and states of the interior West seriously.

The major risks of picking Schweitzer are two-fold. First, his state brings with it the promise of only three electoral votes, and though Bill Clinton won Montana in 1992, given Bush's strong performances there the last two cycles, Schweitzer as running mate is no guarantee of bringing Montana back into the Democratic fold. Second, Schweitzer's Montana is one of only 11 states with four-year gubernatorial terms that coincide with the presidential election, so he'd have to forgo running for a second term as governor in 2008. These risks, plus the fact that he doesn't bring much to the ticket in terms of foreign-policy experience (though he does speak Arabic), make Schweitzer a second-tier choice in the veepstakes -- but a first-rate choice for a prime-time speaking slot at the Denver convention.

-- Thomas F. Schaller

THE BENCH, ETC.

Because nominating politicians for national stardom is one of those time-honored journalists' perks, there are lots of other names floating around in the ether.

Former GOV. TOM VILSACK of Iowa, SEN. EVAN BAYH of Indiana, and GOV. BILL RICHARDSON of New Mexico were commonly named "safe" choices, albeit less-than-exciting ones. Vilsack couldn't nail down the support of his own state in his short-lived presidential bid. Bayh is equally dull, and it's hard to see him bringing solidly Republican Indiana into the Democratic column. Richardson failed to gain much traction as a presidential candidate. With Virginia in play this year, some suggested former GOV. MARK WARNER as an alternative to Jim Webb, though the Democrats really need Warner to pick up Virginia's open senate seat in November. GOV. ED RENDELL of Pennsylvania came up as well, though he's one of the dwindling number of pols who still looks like an old-style political boss. (Rendell would make sense only if the Dems anticipate real trouble with his state's aging, culturally conservative white working-class voters. But the same logic would argue even louder for Ted Strickland in Ohio.)

Center for American Progress president (and Bill Clinton's onetime White House chief of staff) JOHN PODESTA is a progressive with a lot of executive experience, and would likely fare well in the debates. GEN. ERIC SHINSEKI could bring some national-security heft to the ticket and would be a less "political" pick than fellow general WESLEY CLARK. GARY HART could be a Dick Cheney sort of V.P., minus the handicap of actually being Dick Cheney -- no presidential ambitions and a long record of public service on national security issues. And who remembers Donna Rice, anyway?

Some wags in our voting pool took liberties with their assignment. We got everyone from serious-but-obscure academics like KATHLEEN SULLIVAN to roguish-but-aging actors like WARREN BEATTY. Unlike Dick Cheney, nobody suggested themselves ... or Dick Cheney.

-- The Editors

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