The New York Times reported last week that John Kerry hopes to choose a running mate in the next two months.
No doubt his rushed timetable is due in part to the front-loaded primary season. In addition, he could use the help a vice-presidential candidate will provide in the campaign against President Bush. With the September 11 commission and Iraq dominating the network broadcasts, now Kerry can spend a moment out of the spotlight to weigh his options.
I'll make a bold suggestion: Choose a congressional colleague as running mate.
Why is this bold? Well, campaigning against Washington is a proven vote-getter. Bush did it in 2000. He promised to “change the tone” here and to bring some of the so-called bipartisanship he'd demonstrated in Texas to the nation's capital. His ranch in Crawford is nicknamed the “Western White House,” and he's made no secret of the fact that he'd rather spend time there than here.
It also worked for Republicans in the 1994 congressional elections, in which they won control of the Senate and regained a majority in the House for the first time in four decades. They ran on the theme of decentralizing government and said that the states -- not Washington -- should make decisions.
But the situation has changed. (If you don't believe me, ask the Democrats who ran as
outsiders in the primary campaign and lost.) The ongoing threat of terrorism, the war against Iraq, and the nation's fiscal crisis are leading Americans to look to Washington for answers. As Kerry said in a January 29 Democratic debate in Greenville, South Carolina, he's running for president “because I believe we can set a better agenda at the national level than this president is willing to.”
People also want to elect a president who can get results, but a president can't do that by himself. Again, go back to what Kerry said at the Greenville debate, when he noted, “One of the things that you need to know as a president is how things work in Congress if you want to get things done.” It's true: The Clintons' health-care policy failed in part because White House officials worked on their own rather than cozying up to key members of Congress.
One of Bush's problems is that he's been arrogant in dealing with Congress. On every one of his major policy wins on the Hill -- the No Child Left Behind education bill, tax cuts, Medicare reform, sending troops to Iraq -- the president has relied on faulty information and assumptions to persuade lawmakers to back him. Democrats wised up after Bush hoodwinked them on the education bill and then proceeded to inadequately fund it. Several GOP members are frustrated that they voted for a Medicare bill that at least some key members of the administration knew to be more expensive than they let on.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who was supposed to be the ticket's experienced Washington hand, left the House in 1989; at that time, Republicans were in the minority and many of the players on the Hill were different. Missteps in heeding the concerns of Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont cost Republicans control of the chamber for 18 months at a time when the president generally enjoys his greatest political capital. Running with another member of Congress would help Kerry both as a candidate and as president.
Of course, Republicans will no doubt exploit any differences between Kerry and his running mate. But unless Kerry picks a political neophyte as his No. 2, that's going to be an issue. It shouldn't be a disqualifying factor.
As Roll Call reported Thursday, Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan of North Dakota believes that John Edwards would be the strongest running mate for Kerry. And Dorgan is trying to persuade his colleagues to support Edwards for the job. The last time two sitting senators ran on a presidential ticket was in 1960. One was from the north, the other from the south. It was another bold choice, but it worked.
That's something Kerry should think about these next two months.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.
This column originally misidentified Senator Byron Dorgan's home state. Senator Dorgan represents North Dakota, rather than South Dakota.