Monday, June 9, 2008

The Small-Town Mayor Test

Beyond all of the Hillary or not-Hillary dribble in the news, Hillary's candidacy raises some corollary questions about Obama's VP choice. Does he need to pick a woman? Or will Hillary supporters scoff at a "token" pick? Should he pick someone who was staunchly in the Clinton camp during the primaries? Will anybody remember who was on each side in another month? Should he pick someone who appeals to "Clinton Democrats", the lower middle class rural whites in Appalachia and, to a lesser extent, the Midwest?

I want to raise another set of questions as an offshoot to the final one above. For the sake of argument, let's say that Obama's campaign answers that question affirmatively. My question is: should he pick a pro-lifer? It would seem that such a pick would help moderate the party's image on the issue and assuage the cultural fears of rural voters. And with Tim Kaine, Bill Ritter, Tim Roemer and Sam Nunn among them, there is no dearth of viable pro-life candidates. My fear is taking this avenue could be the biggest slap in the face we as a party could give to women voters, just months after the end of Hillary Clinton's historic (and nearly winning) campaign. Abortion is the greatest tool we have to bring back many disillusioned Clinton supporters who now can't tell the difference between Obama and McCain. Selecting a pro-life nominee could make it even easier for them to abandon their principles and cast revenge votes.

My thesis: The purpose of selecting a pro-lifer, or nominating pro-life candidates in general, is to demonstrate to the voters of a certain region that our party is not wedded to a left-absolutist social program, "abortion on demand," as the Republicans brand it, largely successfully. It demonstrates that we think hard about these complicated issues, that we acknowledge the tragedy of abortion, the tradition of gun ownership and opposite-sex marriage and regular church attendance. We don't have to change our minds on all of these issues, but we're going to make a lot of voters uncomfortable unless they know we understand how torn they feel about them. That said, it seems that it's not necessary to nominate a pro-lifer to achieve that kind of understanding. Indeed, a good number of pro-life voters in Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, etc., who voted for Clinton in the primaries seemed committed to doing so again in the general, against a pro-life Republican. But her husband has already established a rapport with those voters, placing down a marker that the Clintons could be trusted as normal people.

That's what we need to achieve. As Joaquin has said many times, Republicans are just way more normal than Democrats, at least at the national party level and in the eyes of the voters who get to decide what normal is. In Ted Strickland, Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, Jim Webb, and others (including John Edwards, who has asked not to be considered) we have a number of pro-choice politicians who have already established, to varying degrees, that kind of rapport with the "normal" voters in their respective states. I have no doubt that any of them would help at least a little bit in the Midwest, the region home to most of the electoral vote-rich swing states.

At the same time, while I buy that a pro-life nominee would make it harder to bring some of Clinton's female supporters back into the fold, I just don't buy that it would be a large number of them. The number one variable in whether there will be a sizable protest defection will be the extent of Clinton's efforts on behalf of Obama. The identity of Obama's running mate might matter, but not tremendously.

Therefore, I would not have a litmus test on abortion in either direction, were I James Johnson.
But I would place a premium on normalcy. With each potential nominee I would ask myself, can I see this guy (or gal) as mayor of a town of 15,000 in south east Ohio, or south west Pennsylvania? If yes, they get on the short list. If no, they'd better be the freakin' Supreme Allied Commander Europe, or something.


Jonathan Cooper said...

I quarrel with your characterization of a "Clinton Democrat" as "lower middle class rural whites in Appalachia and, to a lesser extent, the Midwest."

These voters support Clinton only insofar as she's not a black man. In my view, she doesn't command enthusiastic support from them, and many would probably have preferred Edwards. I see "Clinton Democrats" as old white women.

Alton Brooks Parker said...

Alright, fair point. I shall not quarrel with thine point. I agree with both points you raise. I should have called them "non-Obama Democrats". By the way, I'm gonna call you soon since I haven't talked to you in friggin' forever.