A Clinton-McCaskill Ticket?

It’s way too early to talk about presidential running mates, so why don’t we do precisely that? Ideally, the choice of a running mate would be made based on their suitability to take over as president at a moment’s notice but (Geraldine Ferraro, Dan Quayle, Sarah Palin) we know that this is not always even the smallest of considerations. In practice, the choice is usually made with electoral considerations at the fore, although there are several different strategies that we’ve seen be employed. The oldest is a strategy of creating some regional balance. So, for example, northerners like JFK and Dukakis chose southerners like LBJ and Lloyd Bentsen, while southerners like LBJ and Jimmy Carter chose northerners like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. Another strategy is base mobilization, which means picking someone who has appeal to the your strongest partisans and who will also throw the red meat. Eisenhower did this with Nixon, Nixon did it with Agnew, McCain did it with Palin and Romney attempted it with Paul Ryan. Another strategy is one we could call ‘compensation.’ A candidate who has an obvious weakness chooses someone that can make up for that weakness. George McGovern tried to unite a split party by picking (as his second choice) Sargent Shriver as his running mate, thereby hoping to get people to rally around the Kennedy family. Ronald Reagan and John Kerry made their selections in an effort to reunify their respective parties after a bruising primary season. Poppy Bush tried to compensate for his age by picking a young energetic senator in Dan Quayle. To some degree, Obama’s selection of Biden was an effort to cover for his lack of foreign policy experience.

The most unusual strategy is one we could call “amplification.” This is a strategy where you try to find someone with the same strengths and profile as yourself in order to bolster your advantage. This is what Bill Clinton did by selecting another young southerner, Al Gore, as his running mate. Many people assumed that Clinton would follow the practice of picking a northerner. Others thought he would try to compensate for his young age or lack of foreign policy experience by choosing an old hand. Al Gore did have some limited military experience which partially addressed Clinton’s “draft-dodging” problem, but he would have picked someone else if that was his main concern.

If Hillary Clinton wants to amplify her advantage, she’ll pick a woman as a running mate, perhaps one who is also of a certain age, and maybe one who has a reputation for political centrism and toughness on foreign policy. That’s why I’ve been thinking that Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri would be an interesting choice.

I see that McCaskill was out in force over the weekend defending Clinton and working to atone for her stinging endorsement of Barack Obama in the 2008 cycle. That’s the kind of thing the Clintons want to see. And being from the Obama camp could be helpful to McCaskill because she could form a bridge of sorts, allowing Clinton to show magnanimity and at the same time a peace offering to Obama’s supporters.

The Clinton-McCaskill ticket would take two baby-boomer women with political roots in the Ozarks, a centrist streak, and demonstrated toughness on national security issues, and offer them as two-for-the-price-of-one.

There would be many downsides to this. Amplifying strengths also can amplify weaknesses. Doubling down on age, gender and region prevents you from broadening your appeal. The base will like McCaskill’s endorsement of Obama, but her politics not as much. People whose main concerns with Obama and Hillary are related to foreign policy and national security won’t be encouraged by a hawkish running mate.

One last consideration is Missouri. The state has moved sharply away from the Democrats in the Obama Era, but in 2004 John Kerry did slightly better there than he did in Virginia. Actually, the results were almost identical. Going back a little further, Bill Clinton won the state twice and Al Gore came within 78,000 votes of carrying it in 2000. Overall, Georgia is a riper state for takeover, but Missouri is in second place among states that McCain carried in 2008. If the Dems are going to launch a challenge for Missouri’s electoral votes, a Clinton-McCaskill ticket would be their strongest team.

Finally, I wish I didn’t need to discuss race here, but it’s unavoidable. Clinton certainly could go in a totally different direction by picking a black or Latino running mate, and/or someone young and vibrant and (perhaps) more progressive. She could go with Elizabeth Warren, who would do much more to excite the base. I’d probably be more comfortable with those kinds of picks, as they’d send a signal that Clinton understands the future of the party, the nation, and the importance of the progressive critique of American politics. But picking McCaskill would have some benefits precisely because Clinton wouldn’t be sending that signal. Mainly, she’d be restoring the image of the party back to what it was prior to Obama when it did much better in places like Arkansas, Missouri, rural Ohio and Pennsylvania, and Kentucky and West Virginia. This might broaden the appeal of the party substantially enough that a lot of House seats would become competitive and put control of the Speaker’s gavel on the table. There’s no point sugar-coating this, but racism is so prevalent in so many communities in this country that it is polarizing the electorate in a way that makes winning control of the House extremely challenging for the Democrats.

And, ironically, a more excited progressive base brings a more polarized electorate, and a more polarized electorate means more Republican control in Congress and in state legislatures. So, progressives need to think hard about how to get what they want. The shortest road to the goals might not be a straight line. President Hillary Clinton with a Democratic House and Senate will give us more progress than would be possible if she’s dealing with Boehner and McConnell.

That’s just reality.

I’m not endorsing this ticket, but it would be formidable.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.