Is a VP a VIP for Obama?

The swirl of frenetic attention on Barack Obama’s selection of a running mate is good political entertainment, but keep in mind that it’s mostly a media event rather than a campaign milestone.

Vice presidential candidates can hurt a ticket -- think Tom Eagleton, 1972 -- but they don’t win elections. Common sense tells you that nobody votes for the vice president. After all, George W. Bush beat John Kerry in 2004 carrying vice presidential baggage that, in public opinion terms, was virtually satanic. At most, the running mate helps a presidential candidate at the electoral margins.

If that’s true in normal election cycles, it’s certainly true this year.


Let’s face it: Obama is the first African American with a chance to be president, and there’s nothing any running mate can bring to the ticket that will trump the implications of that. This election is, to an extent unprecedented in recent history, about one man. It isn’t even really about Sen. John McCain, formidable candidate that he is.

Obama’s candidacy is a watershed moment, not simply in American politics but in American history. A little more than a century and a half after the end of chattel slavery, 50 years after the end of Jim Crow, a person of African descent is standing for the nation’s highest office. This election is essentially a referendum on his character and abilities to lead and, to an undeterminable extent, on the willingness of some voters to put aside their racial anxieties.

If Obama’s candidacy is to succeed, he needs to persuade a cross-section of American voters to say simply, “I’m willing to take a chance on him. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

All the names on his short list -- Sen. Joe Biden, Sen. Evan Bayh, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and Texas Rep. Chet Edwards -- might push those decisions at the margin, but the general election is Obama’s to win or lose.

Reporters and commentators may have been frustrated by Obama’s disciplined waiting game on announcing his running mate, but when it comes to campaign strategy, it was an interestingly shrewd move by a team that lately has appeared short on political savvy.

For one thing, delaying the announcement gave the cable and network news anchors and commentators additional hours to chew over McCain’s embarrassing gaffe over precisely how many homes he and his wife, the beer baroness, own. It was a lapse likely to resonate in key swing states -- notably Florida and Ohio -- where home foreclosures are running at record levels. And anything that puts the Arizona senator together with a crisis in banking and lending works to Obama’s benefit, because it’s likely to revive memories of what McCain himself regards as his ethical low point: his membership in the so-called Keating Five during the savings and loan debacle, in which McCain helped a contributor who turned out to be a swindler.

Strategists who understand the ever-more-important art of cyber campaigning also point to a quantitative benefit the Obama campaign gained by delaying the vice presidential announcement to the last possible moment. Early on, the presumptive Democratic nominee’s handlers said word of the selection would be delivered by text message, and they invited voters to visit the campaign website, where they could sign up to receive the news release right along with the press corps. By allowing what some wags called “a frenzied standstill” to develop around the vice presidential selection, the Obama campaign made vital additional time for hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of voters to sign up to receive the announcement. All those names and Internet addresses are now conveniently lodged in the Democrats’ campaign database, available for further announcements and fund-raising solicitations.

Still, as adroitly as Obama and his advisors have milked the vice presidential selection, the process may have further antagonized the unreconciled Hillaryites. The airwaves were abuzz Friday with reports that, despite Obama’s insistence that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was on his short list, she never was contacted by Eric Holder or Caroline Kennedy, who vetted prospective vice presidential candidates. Nor, according to the Politico website, was she asked for medical or financial records, prerequisites for any nominee.

Obama continues to have problems with the middle-aged and older female voters with whom Clinton was so popular. Giving the irreconcilables among them another reason to sit out the election or even to cross the aisle to McCain -- to gloss Tallyrand’s famous appraisal -- is worse than wrong, it’s a mistake.

Close elections have a way of punishing mistakes.