Democracy Soup

Making sense out of the world of politics

James Johnson was never the right pick to run Obama’s VP team

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Originally published on on Thu, 06/12/2008 – 9:09am

The relief that James Johnson resigned as chairman of Barack Obama’s VP vetting team didn’t just stem from the controversy with Countrywide or subprime loans. Johnson was never the right choice from the start.

One problem Democratic candidates have found is finding successful experts with experience. Bill Clinton ran into that problem running in 1992, since the last Democrat won in 1976. Johnson certainly had experience, helping Walter Mondale in 1984 and John Kerry in 2004.

What if Johnson came to Obama and said, “Okay, I know I’ve done this before, and those picks didn’t go well. Here’s what not to do.” That would be helpful advice that Obama could use, but that wouldn’t make him worthy of serving as the chairman of the team.

Let’s start with 1984. Mondale had numerous candidates to choose from, especially presidential rival Gary Hart. And going with a woman wasn’t a bad idea at all, but the better question is whether Geraldine Ferraro was the right choice. The pundits had a field day with her husband’s business activities, and not vetting that was an omission by someone in the Mondale camp. But she also came into the fray with not a lot of experience at a time where the then Vice President had a boatload of experience, when experience was more important in the minds of the voters than it is today.

And then there’s 2004. Kerry had again numerous candidates to choose from. In this instance, Kerry did go with the presidential rival, John Edwards. But while Edwards was a good person to have in the seat, Kerry didn’t seem to think much of him. Kerry underplayed Edwards’s strengths, perhaps not wanting to be outshined by the VP nominee. Despite the snafu of the New York Post calling it for Richard Gephardt, you have to wonder whether having Gephardt might have been better for Kerry. Jonathan Alter, in his June 16 essay in Newsweek, cites three different categories to consider for a VP: geography, chemistry, and international relations. In Kerry’s eyes, Edwards had none of those traits.

How much did Johnson have to do with these picks? Perhaps his influence wasn’t that strong, but given the lack of comfort with the picks by the candidates themselves, one could conclude that outside influence was prevalent. But this is his track record, and it’s not impressive. Johnson certainly would be someone for Obama to talk to for background. But naming Johnson chairman, especially without vetting his background, was not a good move.

Obama speaks of change and of the future. Going back to the failed past for what will be his most crucial decision before November was a mistake. So even if it wasn’t the reason for Johnson’s departure, well, he’s gone.

Eric Holder and yes, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg were marvelous picks for the team. And on the “list of 20” that Obama currently has, hopefully they had quite a bit of influence in the matter. But Johnson’s role as chairman, and his years of experience, was likely a dominating force.

When the presidential candidates appear to make the VP decision, the decision usually is a good one, e.g., Bill Clinton and Al Gore. But we have seen very odd choices made by Democrats that didn’t look like they were made by the candidates, and those haven’t worked out well.

So Sen. Obama, this decision really needs to look like it came from you. Listen to the advice of Holder and Kennedy Schlossberg and anyone else you desire. But your VP choice needs to be decided by the ultimate chairman: you.


Written by democracysoup

June 12, 2008 at 9:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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