JUNE 25, 2008
It has become a quadrennial political ritual that, when a Democratic nominee needs a running mate, Sam Nunn's name shall be mentioned. It was thus in 1988, when Margaret Carlson opined in Time that "[t]o many Democratic Party leaders, Michael Dukakis and Sam Nunn would make such a perfect pair in the fall election that the big question has become not whether Dukakis will offer the taciturn Georgia Senator the second spot on the ticket but whether Nunn will accept it." It was thus in 1992, when Paul Gigot mused of Bill Clinton, "If you're going to play to the center, why not name Sam Nunn?" It was thus in 2000, when the Chicago Tribune reported that Al Gore's rumored "mystery candidate [for veep] is retired U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia." And it was thus four years later, when National Journal declared that "[t]he choice of Nunn would be a very interesting one."
And so it is again. The former Georgia senator has recently been floated everywhere--from David Brooks's New York Times column to the Sunday talk shows to the insider political blogs. One reason Nunn's name is such a hardy perennial is that he's tailor-made for the veepstakes. He is the Washington establishment's archetype of a vice president: undeniably qualified, yet low-key and uninterested in personal glory. He is, in many ways, what Dick Cheney promised to be before it grew evident that Cheney had lost his marbles. And, this year, Nunn would make more sense than ever, bringing to the ticket several vital qualities that Obama could use: impeccable national-security credentials, an air of seasoned gravitas, a Southern drawl that is anything but "elitist."
Yet some insiders call the latest Nunn talk fanciful. One Democratic operative offered me a million-dollar bet against the proposition. And, when asked about the chances of Nunn on the ticket, another veteran party strategist replied, "Nunn. Get it?"
No! To the contrary, the time has come for Sam Nunn.
The case begins with war and peace. The two greatest security threats America faces are the toll of the Iraq war and the specter of nuclear terrorism. Nunn happens to be an expert on both the military and "loose nukes." He served for eight of his 24 years in the Senate as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, becoming one of Washington's top defense policy gurus. For years, his opposition to the first Gulf war was a crippling liability. But now, as an opponent of both Iraq invasions, Nunn is back in step with the popular mood. The same goes for his relentless focus on securing and dismantling loose nuclear weapons and materials lest they fall into the hands of people who want to incinerate U.S. cities. His signature Senate achievement was a cooperative U. S.-Russian program to reduce nuclear stockpiles and shore up security at former Soviet nuclear sites. That program, wrote one prominent author, "has proven to be one of the most important investments we could have made to protect ourselves from catastrophe." The author? Barack Obama, in The Audacity of Hope. Nunn continues that work today at the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, a private foundation that has repeatedly stepped in on counterproliferation tasks the Bush administration has neglected, like rescuing bomb-usable uranium from rickety Eastern European sites. Some might doubt whether Obama is ready for that 3 a.m. phone call, but Nunn--who is already an Obama policy adviser--certainly would be, especially in an era when that phone call is ever more likely to involve a loose nuke.
In this case, good policy makes for good politics, too. Nunn would defend one of Obama's weakest flanks. John McCain is already hammering at Obama's national security inexperience. With both his resumé and his almost funereally sober disposition, Nunn would be an anvil to that hammer. Obama could always choose a military man like former NATO commander Wesley Clark. But Clark's brief 2004 campaign showed that generals aren't natural politicians. Surely it's wiser to choose someone who both knows the military and how to chow corn dogs at county fairs, as Nunn did during his four winning Senate campaigns.
The electoral map? No, Nunn doesn't offer a grand prize like Ohio or Pennsylvania. Georgia, after all, went for George W. Bush by a 17-point margin in 2004. But, with a likely surge in black turnout, plus the libertarian candidacy of former Georgia GOP representative Bob Barr, an Obama-Nunn ticket could put the state's 15 electoral votes into play. And, even if Georgia is a bridge too far, Virginia and Florida voters might respond to a bona fide southerner on the ticket.
Nunn would guarantee Obama one unfortunate thing: a backlash from gay and lesbian activists, who are already refreshing bitter memories about the lead role Nunn played in quashing Bill Clinton's 1993 attempt to allow gays to serve openly in the military. Nunn's hard stand, which included photo-op tours of cramped U.S. submarine bunks, has been branded "bigotry" by gay bloggers. But Nunn conveyed less of a sense of personal morality than an obligation, as Armed Services Committee chairman, to represent the military's views. And, although Obama favors ending the awkward "don't ask, don't tell" policy that emerged from Nunn's opposition, veep choices often successfully renounce past positions to mesh with nominees. (Think of Joe Lieberman and affirmative action in 2000, or George H. W. Bush and abortion in 1980.) Nunn is already inching in that direction: This week, he told an Atlanta reporter that "times change" and "it's appropriate to take another look" at the policy.
But the notion that Nunn would dictate social policy to Obama is silly. And, while Nunn would provoke some rancor from the base, he would more than offset it with swing voters. Nunn fetishizes the concept of bipartisanship in politics and nonpartisanship in foreign policy--last year, he spoke with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Unity08 about a third-party ticket--which would neatly supplement Obama's post-partisan vision. It's true that Nunn and Obama may have different visions of bipartisanship: Nunn followed the old Southern Democratic model of centrism, which tended to define the center as a point of compromise with deal-making Republicans. Obama's version is based more on tone than substance--on treating political rivals with respect while capitalizing on points of majority support for progressive goals. But Obama would set the public tone, and Nunn could quietly cut any necessary deals on Capitol Hill. And Nunn promoters say his centrist Senate record, plus his calm demeanor, will comfort moderate voters worried that Obama is a jejune liberal. As longtime friend and former Democratic Senator David Boren of Oklahoma puts it, Nunn is "a reassuring father figure."
Some strategists might object that, at 70 this fall, Nunn is too old. Better to pick someone who can be Obama's heir apparent. Another argument for Nunn! Few things would mollify the embittered Clinton machine more than an Obama running mate who isn't an instant threat to Hillary's future presidential ambitions.
Nunn, who declined an interview, has recently said he considers the chances of being offered--or accepting--the veep slot "highly improbable." But people close to him believe he will be seriously considered and that he would have trouble refusing if asked. Obama should give the idea hard thought. Democrats won't have Sam Nunn's name to kick around forever.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic.