The Plank

Veep Veep: Evan Not Almighty

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Barack Obama could surely do worse than to tap Evan Bayh as his running mate. He is an honorable and highly experienced public official, having served both as governor and U.S. senator from his home state of indiana. And, as my colleague Nate Silver has noted, his voting record suggests he's actually a bit more progressive than his centrist image suggests. But does that make Bayh the best choice for the job? The answer, I wrote previously in this space, is "no." And a new column from journalist Carl Cannon only reinforces my thinking.

The article, which appears on the Reader's Digest website, offers seven reasons why Bayh would make an ideal running mate. In addition to making familar arguments, like the fact that Bayh would help put Indiana in play, Cannon suggests that "a Bayh pick would have the feel of Bill Clinton's 1992 successful choice of Al Gore." According to Cannon,

Just as Obama and Bayh would represent the Midwest, Clinton and Gore were two southerners, of a simliar age, height, and outlook. Bayh is is reminiscient of Gore in other ways, too. As the sons of U.S. Senators, they both attended St. Albans prep school, and really grew up in Washington, D.C., as much as in their home states.

Cannon is right about 1992: Gore was the perfect campaign sidekick and, later, the perfect vice president. And, it's true, Gore and Bayh have some superifcial biographical similarities. But the differences between Gore and Bayh are far more striking.

By 1992, Gore had already established himself as an influential and widely respected authority on not one but two issues, the environment and arms control. He'd held groundbreaking hearings on toxic waste and he had enacted legislation, later called "the Gore Bill," that led to the creation of the National Information Infrastructure. He'd also written a best-selling book that, contrary to most of the tripe written by sitting politicians, actually won critical acclaim for its intellectual heft. (As a Washington Post reviewer wrote, "if there
lives a member of Congress who knows more about the environment, he or
she isn't talking, much less writing.")

So Gore by the early 1990s had demonstrated the seriouness of purpose, intellectual depth, and willingness to act that foretold the impressive career that would follow. And Bayh? His singular accomlishment, as I've said before, is getting elected and remaning popular in a conservative state where his father was a beloved governor. Cannon's article actually validates this conclusion, since virtually every argument he makes is based on Bayh's political appeal.

I realize that electoral strategy will, and must, play a huge role in the ultimate decision Obama makes. But when Obama gets up in front of the cameras to announce his choice, he'll have to argue that Bayh was the most qualified man (or woman) for the job. On what crtieria, other than supposed red state appeal, can Obama possibly base that claim? And if the choice looks that transparently political, couldn't it end up hurting Obama as much as it helps?

Note: When I last wrote about my ambivalence towards Bayh, several readers asked whom I'd prefer instead. It's simple: Somebody like Gore who has experience and a record of accomplishment, plus a liberal disposition. Of the names in circulation, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Jack Reed fit that description most closely--and I think the political baggage that comes with Hillary's husband probably disqualifies her.

I'm still not familiar enough with Kathleen Sebelius' record to form an opinion, but everybody else who's looked at her time in Kansas seems to think the world of her, so perhaps she should be on the list, too. (Same with Tim Kaine, although I'm more skeptical of him.) Sam Nunn is far more conservative than I'd prefer. But his unglamarous work on non-proliferation is seriously impressive, much as Gore's work on the environment was. And because Nunn is too old to be a presumptive heir, his ideological worldview is less worrisome. Finally, there's the guy I mentioned last week, Carl Levin, who is (as far as I know) not on any list but really ought to be. 

--Jonathan Cohn 

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