With Webb on the ticket, it would be much tougher for McCain to convince Americans that Obama’s foreign policy prescriptions are the product of inexperience and naivetÃ©. ~Steve Kornacki
Why? Consider how this plays out. As it is, Obama stresses his superior judgement and ridicules the value of experience that leads to terrible policies such as the Iraq invasion, and then argues that there should be negotiations with various “rogue” governments, which McCain ridicules as naive and proof of inexperience. All that is necessary for this line of attack to work and persuade many voters to be wary of Obama is for the media to treat McCain’s criticism as somehow serious (which they always do), allow him to keep repeating it without any meaningful challenge (ditto) and treat the “experience gap” as something that Obama has to address (hence endless talking up of Jim Webb as VP). If you add Webb to the ticket, how does any of this change? Webb was prescient and right about Iraq, and in his way so was Obama, so then what is the real difference between Obama making a claim about ending the war in Iraq and Webb making that claim? Does Webb magically have more credibility because he served in Vietnam even though both made comparable arguments in their pre-war warnings against invading?
Arguably, if you put Webb on the ticket with his military service and Navy Secretary experience you re-emphasise Obama’s lack of those things, and furthermore, just as I have been saying all this week, you stress that these things that Obama doesn’t have are really important and, in fact, they are so important that Obama has to use Webb to deflect criticism against him along these lines. What you end up getting is not immunity from McCain’s attacks, but confirmation that McCain has a legitimate point that Obama is inexperienced and that this is a significant problem. But if it’s a significant problem, why won’t McCain’s attack work and why won’t it drive voters away from Obama? Because voters can rest assured that when the going gets tough, Jim Webb will be…second in command? How does that reassure voters about Obama‘s judgement and his decision-making? If he’s inexperienced, maybe he overrules Webb’s counsel and embarks on a misguided policy that Webb told him would be a bad idea; perhaps he will be reluctant to yield to Webb’s counsel if people begin suggesting that Webb is the one really running foreign policy, which could inspire him to push a bad policy to demonstrate that he is in charge. I can’t imagine why anyone who wants Obama to win would keep pushing VP selections that seem sure to trip him up down the line.
Isn’t the Obama-Webb pairing something like the idea circulated during the 2000 campaign, and regretted ever since, that Cheney would be the one guiding and advising the hapless Bush, which was why Bush’s inexperience shouldn’t trouble us too much? How did that work out? You can imagine McCain having fun with this, just as he did when he tore into Romney when the latter spoke about consulting lawyers and experts: “Unlike my opponent, I won’t need to rely on my Vice President to help me understand issues of national security, blah blah blah.” Obama overcame Clinton partly by flipping everything upside down and making her (vastly exaggerated) claim of experience into a liability that tied her to the “old politics” and the status quo, and yet when faced with a major decision Obama is supposed to embrace the expectations and standards that, had he followed them during the nomination fight, would have surely meant his defeat?
Update: James has come up with a devastating counterblast:
Voters simply may not care or be thinking that hard.
This is almost certainly right, and it is even more likely to be true with respect to Veep Madness. Meanwhile, Ross and Jim Henley have more, and Ross has a follow-up post as well. Ross adds that “for the symbolism of an Obama-Webb ticket to work, it would have to be wedded to something more tangible than what Webb has brought to the table in the Senate – some specific policy proposals, for instance, that would allow Webb to act like a heterodox figure, rather than a guy with a history of interesting views who’s sublimated them all in service to his party’s orthodoxy.”
But then you might have thought that for the symbolism of Obama’s hope-and-unity tour to work, he would have to have done more than co-sponsor a bill on securing loose nukes with Dick Lugar and have some evidence of his great powers of bipartisan leadership, yet so far people keep buying into it. It seems to me that many people, myself included, liked to think of Webb as being more “centrist” (even though on the war he was to the “left” of almost half of his current Democratic colleagues), but this was as misguided in its way as the tendency to label this or that politician a “maverick.” By and large, a pol achieves the status of a “maverick” because of the pose that he strikes or because of his personality. The reality that admirers don’t want to acknowledge is that if a politician votes like a left-liberal, he is for all intents and purposes a left-liberal, and the fact that he used to say interesting and provocative things that he could never get away with saying today as a Democrat is actually something of a depressing confirmation that there is no room in the ranks of that party for much of the past career of Jim Webb that people on the right talk about and find so intriguing.
Second Update: Jim Antle also responds and has an interesting post on reports that the Obama campaign is actually vetting Sam Nunn. To follow up on one of Jim’s objections to my earlier argument about Webb, it might seem that a Webb or Nunn pick would not exactly be engaging in a “bidding war over who is more militaristic and irresponsible in foreign policy,” since these two have been Iraq war opponents and have counseled the sort of responsible defense policy one once associated with Republicans (including such Republicans as Jim Webb). But in certain respects it would appear that way, since Webb is one of the true believers that Vietnam could have and therefore should have been won had it not been for nefarious Democrats at home (a view that is not all together popular on his side of the aisle) and Nunn was, as Jim notes, not a McGovernite in a party that was and, in parts, still is (and I don’t say that as a criticism). What I was trying to get at is that choosing a VP candidate to some extent because of his military service or past hawkishness appears to be an attempt to make the ticket seem more credible on national security, but this assumes that the one major candidate who got Iraq right doesn’t already have enormous credibility on national security, which means that everyone is still defining such “credibility” in the same way that they tend to define “seriousness” in foreign policy, which means maximal hawkishness and hegemonism. Today’s Democrats can try to outbid the GOP here, but they will always lose. Selecting a VP candidate to augment a supposed lack of national security credibility compels the Democrats to compete on that ground, because it accepts a conventional understanding of what it means to have credibility on national security, and that conventional understanding has been crafted by militarists and interventionists. It is the same understanding that compels Obama’s campaign and his supporters to tout his foolish position on launching strikes into Pakistan without Islamabad’s consent (a position that, as his supporters like to boast for some reason, he shares with President Bush), and it is folly.