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Running (Mate) to the Center [UPDATED]

Chris Bowers has a thoughtful entry up at OpenLeft that chronicles the progress of the “Barack Obama is moving to the center” narrative. Chris’s argument is that (i) it is Obama’s “fault” that this happened, rather than just some media spin that might be applied to any Democrat, and (ii) it’s a point of discourse the Obama campaign would rather avoid. I tend to agree with Chris on his first point and meet him halfway on the second: I don’t think the Obama campaign really minds the “Obama is moving to the center” narrative, but I’m sure they very much do mind its second-cousin, “Obama is a flip-flopper”.

In any event, some of the ensuing discussion has focused on how this plays into Obama’s selection of a Vice President. I’d think it now becomes more important for Obama to avoid a selection that appears like a centrist pander. Earlier this week, I argued that Evan Bayh was a fairly likely choice because he seemed to fit the Obama campaign’s general disposition to play it safe. But that may be precisely what Obama wants to avoid: the appearance of having played it safe. If someone like Sam Nunn is the choice — and to an only slightly smaller extent with Bayh — Obama risks these three related notions (“playing it too safe”, “moving to the center”, “flip-flopper”) gaining traction. Let’s examine three of the left’s favorite choices for Vice President in light of this landscape:

John Edwards

John Edwards has this very helpful attribute going on where he is perceived by liberals as liberal but by moderates as moderate. His selection would certainly fire up the base and the netroots, but would not risk the “two most liberal Senators” problem that you might get with someone like Jack Reed.

The optics of picking him, however, are in some other ways problematic. Firstly, Obama would obviously have linked himself with John Kerry. And second, Edwards has some flip-flop problems of his own, having moved from being a center-left Senator to a mainline-left candidate in 2004 to a progressive-left candidate in 2008. This theme was never fully exposed in the primaries, because by the time that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton got around into attack mode, they only really had one another to worry about. But the right will use it, particularly as it concerns Edwards’ vote on the Iraq War, and it could ricochet in some dangerous ways on Obama.

Kathleen Sebelius

Sebelius is another politician who comes across as more moderate than she actually is. Perhaps the ultimate test of political acumen is the extent to which someone can continue to govern and win election while staking out a different point on the political spectrum than their state or district has as its default. There are plenty of Democratic governors in red states, and Republican governors in blue states, but almost invariably they are centrists. Kathleen Sebelius is not really a centrist — she is liberal — and yet, she was re-elected in Kansas by a 17 point margin. She accomplishes this (i) by tending to emphasize “common ground” issues like education where public opinion does not fall neatly along a left-right spectrum, and (ii) through her calm, comforting and somewhat dispassionate demeanor. She’s sneaky-smooth. If the Republicans try and portray Sebelius as some kind of radical feminist, it will blow up in their faces, just as it has to many of her opponents in Kansas.

Ordinarily, it would seem very gutsy for the first African-American ever to win his party’s nomination to also select a female Vice President. But because Hillary Clinton was the opponent that Barack Obama defeated to win the nomination, the optics are more complicated. Does it seem like a pander to Hillary Clinton supporters if you pick another woman? Or, because some in the Clinton camp would be unhappy if Obama picked another woman, does that ironically make the decision seem gutsier and more assertive? Here’s the thing: put some of those Clinton crazies on Fox News and have them gripe very loudly about how dare Obama pick another woman. Is this actually going to make the average Fox News viewer, who has little regard for Hillary Clinton in the first place, less inclined to support Obama? You tell me, but I’ll bet to some of them, it makes Sebelius seem more acceptable by comparison.

Anyway, there would undoubtedly be a number of psychological undercurrents if Obama picked Sebelius — I’m just not sure we know as much as we think we do about how they’d all play out. But Sebelius would certainly make Obama’s critics on the left happy, and I don’t think she’d look like a pander.

[EDIT: What I’m arguing, I guess, is that if there is some kind of backlash, there will also be a backlash to that backlash, because the notion that “if not Hillary, all other women are ruled out” is fundamentally grotesque and will be critiqued by all sorts of different parties on the left and the right. This is one of those cases, like in the recent Jesse Jackson faux pas, where the right-wing media could actually wind up helping Obama, because it allows them to bash two of their favorite targets: Hillary Clinton and the (very misguided kind of) political correctness that informs that line of thinking. Throw the PUMAs to the lions, in other words.]

Wesley Clark

But here’s the really interesting one. A month ago, picking Wesley Clark would have seemed like a fairly safe choice — someone who allows you to check the “foreign policy” and “liked by Clinton supporters” boxes. It might have seemed, in other words, like a pander.

But because of the Face the Nation dust-up, all of the sudden it would send a very different message. It would say: we’re going to stand our ground, we’re not going to be so worried about being politically correct, and we’re taking it right to you. Isn’t that a fairly optimal message for Obama to send out given the present narrative?

I still think there are some risks with Clark. You put the foreign policy issue front and center, and you maybe give McCain a little bit of a running start by recalling his experience as a POW. But it would sure put a taser blast on the flip-flop narrative.

UPDATE: Quick thoughts on a couple of additional candidates. One, Chris Dodd is not going to be the pick. Absolutely not. I’d lay 100-1 odds against it. Chris Dodd did a favor to Obama in the primaries by coming out and endorsing him relatively early. Obama is doing a favor to Chris Dodd by listing him as a potential Veep choice, which is meant to connote that the Countrywide scandal does not make him politically unacceptable. But the fact is that while the Countrywide scandal probably does not make Chris Dodd so politically unacceptable as to render him unelectable as one of Connecticut’s two senators, it probably does render him sufficiently politically unacceptable in the near-term to be the Democrats’ one and only Vice Presidential nominee. Why would you put an issue like that on the table? What other overwhelming positives does Dodd have to counteract it?

Jack Reed? Reed is a former paratrooper and Army Ranger and used to teach at West Point. But here’s the problem with Jack Reed: I’m not sure that you want to make the foreign policy fight front and center unless you’re pretty sure you can win it (or at least fight it to a draw). The irony of the whole Wesley Clark thing is that Americans really aren’t all that concerned with the service record of their President. We have, after all, elected a draft dodger to the White House in four elections running. So it’s not enough to have played the part: I think you have to look the part. Wesley Clark and Jim Webb look the part; I don’t think Jack Reed, who is somewhat less skilled as a political cage-fighter, quite does. Jack Reed is a blank slate to 93 percent of the population, and I think once it’s filled in, more people will see “liberal senator from Rhode Island” than “decorated veteran and foreign affairs expert”.

Tim Kaine
, on the other hand, whom Al Giordano thinks might have the upper hand, seems fairly plausible. Kaine is the new Evan Bayh: the first name on the list with no obvious red flag. Why isn’t Evan Bayh the new Evan Bayh? Because he’s too safe, which, if you follow my logic, actually makes him less safe.

Ed Rendell, who made Robert Novak’s short list? I actually find him to be somewhat viable, precisely because I find his biggest purported downside — his tendency to be glib and politically incorrect — to in fact be advantageous to a candidate (Obama) who can sometimes seem calculating and overcautious. What the Obama people need to figure out is whether he can turn the whole Archie Bunker shtick on and off, or whether it’s intrinsic to his personality. If the former, he deserves serious consideration.

And, of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Brian Schwetizer, whose utility has only increased as energy has become more of a wedge issue.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.