Balancing Act

What sort of running mates should Barack Obama and John McCain pick?


People who are under the influence of alcohol often are seized with impulses that seem brilliant at the time but end up looking like horrible mistakes the next day. We are now at the stage of the presidential election when intoxication at the prospect of the fall campaign produces ideas that, if adopted, will lead only to regret.

One came in an article on the influential op-ed page of The Washington Post, proposing a simple way to reconcile Hillary Clinton and her supporters to Barack Obama's looming victory. "It's likely that the next president will face at least one Supreme Court vacancy," wrote James Andrew Miller, formerly an aide to Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker. "Obama should promise Hillary Clinton, now, that if he wins in November, the vacancy will be hers, making her first on a list of one."

In Miller's view, it would guarantee a quick Senate confirmation, gratify her supporters by assuring her life tenure in a job more consequential than vice president and add a solid liberal vote to a conservative-leaning court.

No doubt. But it would brand Obama as an unsavory deal-maker willing to bribe a rival for her blessing, badly tarnishing the rationale of his candidacy. It would also give Republicans a matchless opportunity in the fall campaign—trumpeting the specter of an Obama presidency and a Clinton court.

Making her his running mate, as many people have suggested, would be nearly as bad an idea. It, too, would taint him as a cynical pol bartering his soul for the White House. It would do little to attract the independent voters he will need, many of whom detest her. And who would trust Obama to negotiate with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after this craven appeasement of Clinton?

But not all the bad ideas are on the Democratic side. John McCain spent some time the other day looking over possible vice presidential nominees, including Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, former rival Mitt Romney, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The choice of a running mate is especially important for McCain because, at 72, he would be the oldest person ever to become president. So his first priority should be to find a vice president who is ready from day one to take over if the worst should happen.

None of these prospects qualifies. Crist has only 17 months' service in the statehouse. Romney is a one-term governor whose presidential race exposed him as a man of weak political skills and weaker political convictions. Jindal is 36 years old, barely above the minimum age for the office, and was elected governor only last fall. All are conspicuously lacking in experience on matters of national security.

Any of these candidates would make it hard for McCain to exploit an issue that should work greatly to his advantage: Obama's skimpy political résumé. If it's unwise to entrust our security to a neophyte, how can McCain expose the nation to that very risk? And how can the GOP say national security should be paramount in choosing a president if it is irrelevant in choosing a vice president?

Time was you could pick a running mate with modest credentials purely for political reasons. But in recent decades, Americans have come to expect considerably more heft—which is why Dan Quayle was a liability to George H.W. Bush and why George W. Bush picked a No. 2 from a state with only three electoral votes that he was sure to carry anyway.

History suggests that running mates make little if any difference in the outcome of an election. So Obama and McCain have a duty to choose someone who would be both a useful contributor as veep and a suitable replacement as president.

There are plenty of good options available. In the spirit of bipartisanship, let me suggest two. For Obama: former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam veteran who received the Medal of Honor and was a member of the 9/11 commission. For McCain: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a military lawyer who has been an independent voice on the treatment of enemy prisoners and whose voting record is more conservative than McCain's.

In weighing how to vote in November, Americans have to wonder how McCain and Obama will handle the sort of difficult, inescapable, important decisions a president has to face. When they grapple with these matters, we won't have to wonder.