A Test for Obama's Promises

Chuck Hagel
Chuck Hagel (Charles Dharapak - AP)
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By David Ignatius
Sunday, May 18, 2008

One of the most appealing but untested promises of Barack Obama's presidential campaign is that he would break down the partisan divisions in America and govern across party lines. He has a chance to make this gauzy idea of consensus politics concrete in his choice of running mate.

By reaching outside the Democratic Party for his vice presidential nominee -- tapping Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, say, or independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg from New York -- Obama would in an instant demonstrate that he truly means to change the divisive, lose-lose politics of Washington. It would offer a unity government for a country that seems to want one.

There are all sorts of practical arguments against such an unconventional choice -- not least that it would upset many of Obama's liberal Democratic supporters. But it would make a powerful statement that Obama really does want to govern in a different way. It would make "change we can believe in" more than a slogan.

By choosing a veteran politician outside his own party, Obama would solve three problems at once: He would undercut the bipartisan appeal of his maverick GOP rival, Sen. John McCain; he would ease voters' fears about his own youth and inexperience; and he would find a compelling alternative to Hillary Clinton, who for all her virtues as a vice president would come with heavy baggage -- not least the role of her husband, who is even harder to imagine as Second Laddie than as First.

Moreover, Obama needs to counter the charge that he talks a better game about bipartisanship and change than he has actually delivered. His voting record in Illinois and Washington mostly has been that of a conventional liberal, and there are precious few examples of him taking political risks to work across party lines.

McCain, by contrast, has actually fought the kind of bipartisan battles that Obama talks about -- from campaign finance to climate change to rules against torture -- and he has the political scars to prove it. That's why the Republican base is still so uneasy about him, because they know that McCain's natural allies in recent years have been centrist Democrats. By picking a GOP running mate, Obama would outdo McCain -- and in the process make some enemies in his own party. That would make him a more appealing candidate, I suspect.

Hagel would be an especially interesting choice for Obama. As a decorated Vietnam veteran, he would add some national security heft to the ticket. And he was also an early and courageous GOP critic of the Iraq war, which would reinforce one of the most powerful themes of Obama's campaign. At the same time, although Hagel agrees with Obama on the need for withdrawal from Iraq, his military credentials would reassure U.S. allies that it would not be a pell-mell retreat.

A final advantage is that Hagel and Obama seem to like each other. Hagel is said to view Obama as a politician with a special gift who might actually be able to bring the country together. Whether Democrats could accept Hagel's pro-life views and other aspects of his Republican identity is a complicated question, but here again, bipartisanship is about bridging hard issues.

Bloomberg would provide a different sort of boost for Obama. He could run as the bipartisan manager and problem-solver, the nation's chief operating officer, if you will. That would free Obama, who has never managed much of anything, for the larger role of leadership -- the visionary politics at which he's so good.

The New York mayor would also make a good running mate for McCain -- who badly needs someone with economic credentials to offset his own lack of experience and interest in this area. But it would be difficult for the GOP to embrace a double dose of bipartisanship, when many in the party already view McCain as a quasi-Democrat.

If Obama were to run on a unity ticket, it would be a sign that he thinks the nation is in such serious trouble, at home and abroad, that the normal political rules don't apply. Obama could choose among many fine Democrats for his running mate, but none of them would send such a powerful message to America and the world that he means what he says about turning a page.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

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