There has been much speculation that if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination for President (a less certain bet today than a few months back though still likely), she will choose a running mate with a military background. Virginia Senator Jim Webb and former General Wesley Clark are two former military men who have been prominently mentioned. But both have suffered from bouts of foot-in-mouth disease. A far more obvious and smarter choice, if this is the path that Clinton chooses to go, would be former Nebraska Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey.*
And there is at least some evidence that such a move may be in the works.
Earlier this year, Nebraska's maverick Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, announced that he would not seek re-election to the Senate (running as a VP with Michael Bloomberg on a third party ticket may have some appeal however). The Democrat most capable of winning this open seat would be Bob Kerrey, now the President of the New School in New York. But Kerrey flirted with running for the Senate for a few weeks, and then bowed out.
One possible explanation for his decision not to run was that Mike Johanns, the popular former Republican Governor, later appointed Agriculture Secretary by President Bush, had entered the race for the GOP nomination. In Presidential election years, Nebraska typically votes 60% or more for the GOP nominee. It would require a lot of ticket switching for a Democrat to win a Senate race. This has happened before: Democrat Ben Nelson won an open senate seat in 2000 by 51% to 49%, while George Bush won the state's 5 Electoral College votes by a 29% margin (62% to 33%) over Al Gore.
While Kerrey would have been an even bet or better against any other GOP nominee, against Johanns he would have started out as an underdog. So it may have been a simple electoral calculus that led Kerrey to bow out. But what if the reason Kerrey decided not to run for the Senate is that he got a call asking him if he wanted to return to Washington in a different capacity, namely as Vice President?
Just over a week ago, Kerrey flew out to Iowa to endorse Hillary Clinton for President. The endorsement followed by a day the editorial support for Clinton by the State's largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register. Perhaps in a tryout for the role of a Vice Presidential candidate (attacker in chief), Kerry also praised Obama's international appeal as a candidate with a Muslim-sounding name and roots, while of course reminding primary voters of the Muslim connection as well. . The latest polls this week show Clinton has stopped the leakage in her campaign in Iowa, and is now running even with or slightly ahead of Barack Obama there .
The momentum that Obama seemingly had, which his campaign expected to carry over to New Hampshire five days later, then Nevada, and South Carolina, is suddenly a strategy in danger of being short circuited on the first leg. Obama has lashed out this week at John Edwards, whose campaign is undoubtedly attracting voters who might otherwise go to Obama in Iowa. Each of the three major candidates for the Democratic nomination could finish first, second or third in Iowa.
For Clinton, a first place finish probably clinches the nomination. But a second place finish to Edwards would not be so bad either, as it would derail Obama, the third place finisher, and her more serious competitor for the nomination. In time, Clinton's money and organization would grind down Edwards in later primary contests. With heavy union support from the NEA, AFL-CIO unions, and the AFSCME, and the "all but Hillary" vote divided among two opponents, Clinton may have the ground game to eke out a narrow win in Iowa. The state's importance to her has never been higher. Bob Kerrey's ability to help her out in Iowa is substantial. Not only does Nebraska border Iowa, its largest city, Omaha, lies across the Missouri River from Iowa, and the Omaha/ Council Bluffs metropolitan area includes a substantial number of Iowa residents familiar with him and his service as governor and senator.
A Clinton victory in Iowa would also have an impact on the GOP race in New Hampshire. If Obama won Iowa, it is likely that many independents in New Hampshire, who are allowed to vote in either party's primary, might choose to pick up a Democratic ballot to vote for Obama. But if Clinton wins Iowa, and her numbers then look very strong in New Hampshire, independents may flock to the GOP race, as they did in 2000, to vote for John McCain. Suddenly, McCain, who has drawn close to Mitt Romney in New Hampshire becomes one of the serious frontrunners for the nomination . Polls show McCain running the best against all potential Democratic opponents, and particularly well versus Clinton. McCain against Clinton would be a tough race for Clinton, as she would be on the short end of various measures with voters, including perceptions of character, warmth, humor, authenticity, military background, and experience.
So how do you run against a war hero and a former prisoner of war? Well, with one of your own, albeit a younger one -- a Medal of Honor winner, and a man who lost a leg in Vietnam: Bob Kerrey. Add to this that Kerrey has a reputation as the "good Kerrey" (as opposed to the haughty John), and has a reputation as a budget-balancing Midwestern moderate. Kerrey would help the ticket in the most competitive Midwestern states where the election is likely to be decided: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, and maybe Pennsylvania.
There would be a juicy irony in all this, if it happens. Bob Kerrey ran against Bill Clinton for the Democratic nomination for President in 1992. Kerrey's key backer was New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. When Moynihan retired from the Senate, Hillary Clinton succeeded him in New York. As a Senator, Kerrey had an icy relationship with President Bill Clinton, at one point calling him an "unusually good liar" after Clinton made certain commitments to Kerrey about future spending cuts in order to win his vote (the decisive one) on a tax increase package in 1993. Clinton never followed through on the spending cuts. As to the objection that Hillary Clinton and Bob Kerry are both New York State residents, and according to the 12th Amendment, New York State's Electoral College voters could not therefore vote for both, that problem is easily solved by having Kerrey switch his registration back to Nebraska (or any other state) early next year. A similar issue was raised about George Bush and Dick Cheney both being Texas residents in 2000 (when Cheney ran Halliburton), but Cheney was officially a Wyoming resident at election time.
In the last few weeks, there have been stories about how the Clinton White House would operate if Hillary won, and how Bill, as the power behind the throne, might intimidate Cabinet members and advisors. These stories have not helped Hillary, who has fallen behind in head-to-head races with most potential GOP opponents. There is nothing fresh or new (and no real change agent material) about a Clinton restoration and rehashing the very complicated relationship between Bill and Hillary. The man generally considered the world's neediest narcissist would not meekly disappear within a Hillary White House.
But what if Bob Kerrey would be there as the VP? Trying to navigate the psychodrama of the Hillary-Bill relationship at that point, and how the presence of a new strong man around Hilary would impact this, is better left for the psychiatric couches of America. But if Kerrey helped Hillary to get elected, and Bill were his usual double edged sword in that contest, the relationship might change even before an inauguration.
But most important for Hillary is getting elected. This is a woman who has been laser focused on that goal for decades. If Bob Kerrey is the man who brings the most to the ticket, expect it to happen, whatever Bill might think about it.
* I thank my wife Lijana for suggesting Kerrey as the ideal running mate for Hillary. Richard Baehr is political director of American Thinker.