Now that Barack Obama is clearly the Democratic presidential nominee, the question turns to his running mate. I made the case
for Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown over a month ago, but he has garnered little national support. Ialso argued that Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius should be bypassed since she “has little national experience and is not ready for prime time;” but her support among the netroots has steadily grown. While some of the arguments for Sebelius—she is a Governor, a woman, and is from a Red state—are not convincing, a closer review of her record shows that she has been surprisingly progressive while maintaining her popularity in a conservative state. Obama's running mate should share his ideology and approach to governance, and, most importantly, help him secure the “working political majority” essential for implementing his agenda. Sebelius appears to meet all these tests, and may well be Obama’s best choice.
The Role of the Vice-Presidential Nominee:
Conventional wisdom is that vice-presidential nominees should “balance the ticket,” either geographically or ideologically, and help secure at least one important electoral college state. The model was Franklin Roosevelt’s choice of Texas’ John Nance Garner in 1932, almost mirrored by John F. Kennedy’s selection of Texan Lyndon Johnson in 1960.
But since 1964, the only vice-presidential nominee who might have been said to swing an election was Joe Lieberman in 2000. Lieberman won enough conservative Jewish votes to put Florida in Gore’s column, before the Supreme Court overturned their victory in the state. Vice Presidents Spiro Agnew (Nixon), George H. W. Bush (Reagan), Al Gore (Clinton) and the current Dick Cheney did not win a key state for their ticket.
So the case for Sebelius is not weakened by Kansas not being a vital state in November, or her inability to swing another important state (while her father, John Gilligan, was Ohio Governor in the 1970’s, he was not re-elected, raising questions as to whether his legacy helps an Obama-Sebelius ticket). And while Sebelius would not deliver an important electoral state, her selection would likely help Obama in Missouri, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Montana and other winnable states with more conservative Democrats.
Sebelius also has the advantage of being Catholic, the Democratic constituency where Obama has proven weakest. It would be quite surprising if Obama did not choose a Catholic running mate, adding to Sebelius’ chances.
Only Governors Need Apply:
Sebelius is also helped by the widespread, though questionable, view that Senator Obama should not choose a fellow Senator as his running mate. This has hurt Senator Sherrod Brown’s chances, while elevating both Sebelius and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.
Wanted: Women Candidates
Sebelius is also benefiting from the belief that energizing Hillary backers requires a woman vice-presidential nominee.
Among female non-senators, only Sebelius and Arizona’s Janet Napolitano are likely choices. And Napolitano is not only less of a national player than Sebelius, but her complicated positions on immigration could plunge Obama into a debate about Arizona immigration laws that he prefers to avoid.
Although the women who ardently backed Hillary Clinton are not going to vote for the anti-choice John McCain, adding a woman to the ticket would expand and further galvanize Obama’s base. It would also reaffirm Obama’s commitment to change.
Red Staters Preferred
Obama rode to the nomination claiming that we are not a nation of red and blue states, but rather that we are the United States. Kansas is the reddest of states in presidential elections, and picking Sebelius would demonstrate Obama’s serious commitment to bridging the red and blue state divide.
Is Sebelius Progressive?
Obama must select a progressive vice-presidential nominee who shares his “big tent” approach and who will be able to secure Congressional votes for Obama’s ambitious agenda. Sebelius’ ability to win elections in conservative Kansas reflects her capacity to win more conservative voters to her side; the question is whether she is sufficiently progressive.
After studying her record, and to my surprise, the answer appears to be yes.
When Sebelius ran and won for Kansas Insurance Commissioner in 1994 (the year of the Republican national sweep), she refused to take campaign contributions from insurers. She blocked the proposed merger of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas, the state's largest health insurer, with an Indiana-based company. This certainly positions her well for dealing with the massive health insurance lobbying that will oppose Obama’s health care program.
While Insurance Commissioner, Sebelius also earned plaudits from UNITE-HERE for honoring its hotel boycott. She led the way for the national convention of state insurance commissioners to shift their scheduled location to a non-boycotted hotel.
In April 2005, Sebelius opposed a ballot measure that made same-sex marriage in the state unconstitutional. She opposes capital punishment, and has taken strong stands for sensible gun control.
Sebelius is currently involved in a major battle with Sunflower Electric Company, a Kansas-based utility. As Beyond Chron reported
in February 2007, Sunflower seeks to expand its already existing coal-fired power plant in Holcomb, Kansas into three new 700 Megawatt guzzlers.
The Republican dominated state legislature has twice passed bills approving Sunflower’s plans, and Sebelius vetoed both. Both vetoes were narrowly upheld, and environmentalists have lauded her for resisting enormous pressure to approve the new plants.
A Governor who stands up to corporate interests on behalf of the environment? Bill Clinton never did this in Arkansas, which foreshadowed his betrayal of green constituencies throughout his first term. Sebelius’ fight with Sunflower is sending the directly opposite message.
Obama appears to get along well with Sebelius, who endorsed Obama a week before Super Tuesday, at a critical juncture in his campaign. Kansas went on to give him the largest victory margin of any state up to that time, as voters turned out for caucuses in record numbers
Unlike Geraldine Ferraro, an obscure congresswoman picked by Walter Mondale to be his running mate in 1984 to lend excitement to a politically hopeless campaign, Kathleen Sebelius is not an example of political tokenism. She is a steely, politically astute politician with the executive experience that some believe Obama lacks.
Obama will face many tough decisions as president, and Sebelius could prove a great partner in this task. Obama has proved over the past months that he listens carefully to the Party’s activist base, and growing expressions of support for Sebelius could make her selection a reality.