As if the Democrats hadn’t been forced into quite enough soul-searching by the Clinton-Obama death match, now comes the fraught matter of finding the right running mate for the survivor. A zillion strategic and ideological calculations are already knocking around the punditsphere. Does the changemonger from Illinois need the ballast of a well-traveled centrist with gravitas, like Sam Nunn or Wesley Clark? Dare the Democrats choose another “first” to run with Obama–Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, Kathleen Sebelius? Would Obama/Clinton really be a “dream” or, as some fear, a ticket to eight years of debilitating power struggles and internecine Democratic warfare? Should the party try to use the VP slot to clinch a key state–with Ted Strickland in Ohio, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania or Jim Webb in Virginia? Does it make more sense to look West, South or Industrial Belt? Is this the time for a no-excuses liberal like Russ Feingold, an evangelical do-gooder like Strickland or a working-class hero like John Edwards?
Exhausted voters don’t get to (or have to) make this tricky call, of course. Neither, really, do the Democratic convention delegates–that docile studio audience who rubber-stamped Geraldine Ferraro in ’84, Lloyd Bentsen in ’88 and Joe Lieberman in ’00. This one’s up to Obama, who recently tapped old Washington hand Jim Johnson–the fellow who helped Mondale find Ferraro in ’84 and Kerry pick Edwards in ’04–to head up his search team. Let’s hope the choice will be made with a full awareness of just how many political light-years we are removed from 1984–and from 2004. Obama should approach this decision not merely with an eye to winning 270 electoral votes, but with his sights set on the long term: finding the person who can do the most to broaden and invigorate the progressive-populist majority that is emerging in every part of the country.
Obama’s strangest option is also his strongest. To many progressives, ex-Republican Jim Webb sounds like another centrist compromise–Lieberman in combat boots. After all, he’s got that history as a Reagan-era Defense official and Navy Secretary in the 1980s. He’s a proud Vietnam veteran. He adores firearms. He’s criticized affirmative action for helping blacks but leaving out poor whites. He wrote a paleolithic op-ed against women in combat in 1979 and later called the Navy investigations of the Tailhook sexual assault scandal a “witch hunt.” He’s railed fiercely through the years at the “cultural Marxists” and ’60s liberals who, he felt, demonized his fellow soldiers in Vietnam and blamed his fellow working-class whites for Jim Crow.
It’s understandable that the heavy VP chatter about Webb has some progressives climbing the walls, accusing his male supporters of hopeless “man crushes” and declaring, as G Spot blogger Kathy G. did recently, “Ixnay on the Ebbway.” But the Webb who became the Democrats’ boldest antiwar champion of 2006, when he unseated popular senator George Allen, bears little resemblance to the ugly composite portrait that can be assembled by quoting his old apostasies (all now heavily qualified or recanted). Webb is, in many respects, the antithesis of Lieberman or Bentsen–“centrists” chosen not so much to appeal to independents as to placate Wall Street. While most reporters persist in describing him as a conservative, Webb has rapidly emerged as one of the Democrats’ strongest voices from the left on the two great issues of the day: Iraq and economic fairness. He spent most of his 2006 campaign railing against the treachery of corporate America and trickle-down economics. Even more boldly than Obama, Webb spoke out against invading Iraq–in fact, he began arguing against it in the late 1980s, when the neocons were first beating those drums. In the Senate–as a freshman–he has been the single most clever and relentless Democrat in challenging Bush’s Iraq policy, most recently steering through the new GI Bill. While his voting record is short, it’s thus far prochoice, prolabor and pro-environment. For what it’s worth, Webb got an A in 2007 from the progressive Drum Major Institute; perfect scores from NARAL, the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO; a 90 from the Children’s Defense Fund; and an 85 from Americans for Democratic Action.