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Sebelius Shell Game?

From an e-mail a friend sent me late last night:

Something about all the Kaine buzz just doesn’t feel right, unless Obama is planning on making the announcement tomorrow.

Well, it’s tomorrow, and in spite of Kaine having cancelled a scheduled appearance at a Baltimore fundraiser, there is no indication that Obama is about to announce that Kaine or anybody else will be his VP. On the contrary, the New York Times reports that “a decision is believed to be weeks away”.

Ever since biographical videos of Kaine began appearing on websites like this one last week, there seems to have been a concerted effort to build up Kaine’s brand name and introduce him to a national audience. But is this effort coming from the Kaine folks, or from the Obama folks?

One can understand why Kaine might want to take advantage of his opportunity in the national spotlight. He can’t run for re-election in Virgnia, and the General Assembly seems disinclined to do him any favors, so he’s unlikely to have anything he can hang his hat on to spruce up his approval ratings by the time he leaves office. This is the best opportunity he’ll have, then, to build up his name recognition in preparation for life as a cabinet official, figurehead in the Democratic party, leader of some kind of foundation, television pundit, etc. — whatever he plans to do with himself once leaving office.

But what’s the angle for the Obama folks in attempting to float Kaine’s name? Are they being just as obvious and transparent as they were with things like the John Edwards endorsement? Are they honestly unsure about how he’ll fare on a national stage and trying to gain information? Or are they deliberately using him — probably with Kaine’s consent — as some kind of decoy?

The latter seems a little Goldbergian, and the off-the-wall theory I’ll present below will seem even more so, but let’s give it a try. The theory is that floating Kaine’s name in this way might have some utility if Obama intends to pick Kathleen Sebelius — the notion being that, by using Kaine as her foil, it appears that Obama is making a considered choice rather than some kind of affirmative action hire. From among Obama’s short list, Kaine and Sebelius might make for the easiest applies-to-apples comparison. Like Kaine, she got on the Obama bandwagon very early, she’s a red-state governor, and she has the same sort of easygoing, folksy, every(wo)man manner. But where there are differences, they tend to work in Sebelius’ favor. She has a longer and more accomplished record in elected office, she is considerably more popular in a tougher partisan environment, and she is somewhat more liberal on issues like abortion and the environment, which will please elements of the base.

In other words, the effort may be to define Kathleen Sebelius as “NOT Tim Kaine” — to hedge against the alternative of her being defined by the media as “NOT Hillary Clinton”. As anybody who has read Predictably Irrational can tell you, we human beings make judgments about things almost entirely on the basis of comparison. When compared to Kaine, Sebelius suddenly seems a lot more experienced, and almost the ‘safer’ choice in a way.

Well, I’ve almost managed to convince myself. The truth is that I just don’t have any kind of gut feeling about this. The one semi-credible rumor I heard was pointed in Kaine’s direction. But the whole point may be that people like me are supposed to be hearing rumors like that.

As for Sebelius, she spent her day with T. Boone Pickens, the man who helped underwrite the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and who is now engaged in a high-profile effort (with arguably dubious incentives) to champion wind power. Pickens called her a “fabulous governor”. You can’t pick any old Democrat off the shelf and expect to hear that sort of bipartisan praise.

From among Obama’s four reported short-listers, Sebelius is undoubtedly the riskiest choice. Yes, a small part of that is because of how Hillary Clinton’s voters might react to her. But the larger and more banal point is simply that running a black man and a woman on the same ticket says “NEW!! CHANGE!! DIFFERENT!!” in a way that will simply be impossible to put back into the bottle later on.

For just this reason, she may also have the largest upside. But it also means that her rollout would require the most careful handling. I probably guilty of trying to read a signal through the noise when there isn’t one, but if Kaine is being used to prop her up, it would make a certain amount of sense.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.