Help Wanted

June 26, 2008 Topic: Great Powers Tags: Superpower

Help Wanted

Barack Obama’s looking for a running mate—and Jim Webb is on the short list. Though choosing the Virginia senator carries some risk, Webb’s strength on national-security issues just might make him the best choice.

Those that have challenged the Clintons have not always fared so well (conspiracy theories aside), but if any stake is to be put into polls, Senator Barack Obama appears to be overcoming the Hillary-related pall he was under during the primary season with some important demographic groups. He will apparently not have to rely on teaming up with Hillary Clinton to capture some of the groups that she commanded. Obama is now polling better-and well-with women, a subset that was strongly in Clinton's corner and, some argued, would rebel against an Obama nomination. Importantly, a poll by Quinnipiac University of swing states released Monday suggests that tapping Clinton to become his running mate would jeopardize some key support from independents, the most important group come November. Obama also has gained sizeable support from Catholics, a group that Senator John McCain may need to rely on. And Obama is also narrowly edging out McCain in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

But if not Hillary, then who? The names being bandied about are certainly respectable and worthy of consideration: Senator John Kerry, Senator John Edwards, former Senator Sam Nunn, former General Wesley Clark, Senator Joseph Biden, General James L. Jones, Governor Kathleen Sebelius and Governor Brian Schweitzer.

Any of these choices would presumably make fine enough running mates, but of course another prominent name has been much discussed- Senator Jim Webb.

A Webb-Obama ticket would undoubtedly hold quite a bit of star power-too much many have argued. Indeed, there are a number of risks in selecting the incandescent Webb, including his erstwhile, but now reversed, opposition to women serving in the military. Temperamentally, he seems almost Obama's antithesis. And as a Reagan Democrat who later returned to the Democratic fold, he would appear to be post-partisan in the way Obama has been described as post-racial. That political independence could be a double-edged asset as a vice president. After President Ronald Reagan appointed Webb Secretary of the Navy in 1987, he resigned in 1988 to protest cuts in funding. While such a move is admirable, Obama could not afford any similar gesture due to policy disagreements, should he become president and Webb his second in command.

Perhaps with this personal trait in mind, Webb has in the past said that he isn't interested in the vice presidency. But of late, he has possibly signaled some interest in teaming up with Obama, presumably with an understanding of the degree of conformity that the office demands. Earlier this month during Webb's address at Virginia's Democratic convention, the crowd began chanting, "VP! VP! VP!" and Sen. Webb pumped his fist in the air before walking off the stage.

Webb would surely be an asset to Obama on the campaign trail. But more overlooked are the attributes that would allow Webb to not only bolster a candidate Obama, but also a potential President Obama in carrying out the most vital missions of his tenure. That combination of both pre- and post-election utility could make Webb the most compelling of all choices, despite the risks he may present.

While the more reticent Obama has more of a cerebral charisma-demonstrating sound, well-articulated judgment and a willingness to take some principled political risks-Webb has a personal appeal that hinges on his history as a decorated war hero, novelist and overall exuberance. His support of a strong military, his military record, his Scottish-Irish heritage and his cultural background (he told the Wall Street Journal he has taught all his children, except his toddler, how to shoot a firearm as kind of Southern bar mitzvah) would surely help Obama capture some of the rural, poorer white areas he is still showing some weakness in, such as Appalachia and other regions-to say nothing of Webb's potential help in Virginia.

Also, Webb's solid military credentials could prove invaluable in deflecting the expected criticisms of what would be Obama's most important undertakings: the exit from Iraq and negotiations with Iran. A victorious Obama would have a mandate for both but his success could be undermined, in terms of public and congressional support, by what will surely be an organized attack against such ventures.

Even those Americans that currently support both initiatives might become increasingly disenchanted as the complexity of each becomes clearer over time. The withdrawal of troops from Iraq-while of the utmost importance-will probably result in increased bloodshed that will be blamed on the United States. And due to the Iraq War, the United States is in a much weaker position to negotiate with Iran its cooperation with America's Iraq withdrawal and a suspension of its nuclear program. The United States would be forced to limit its priorities with Iran and offer it inducements-leaving Obama open to charges that he is turning America into Iran's supplicant, to borrow a term from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Obama will be highly susceptible to charges of appeasement on both Iran and Iraq that could resonate with large swaths of the public and further divide the country.

A combination of Webb's vocal opposition to the war in Iraq (despite his son's service in that country) and his own military service would allow him to convincingly advocate for these initiatives by an Obama administration. Other candidates-such as Jones and Clark-may have the military credentials that would make such advocacy more muscular, but they may not match Webb in personal charisma and persuasion.

The domestic health of the country will depend on the next president's ability to deal with foreign-policy challenges. Many of the country's domestic ailments are associated with the rise in oil prices and fiscal spending related to the Iraq War and the regional problems it has exacerbated. Given the set of priorities, Webb may well be Obama's best choice for lieutenant.


Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.