Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Steven Waldman: Obama Should Pick Jim Webb for VP

From Wall Street Journal Blogs:
As for Sen. Webb’s views on affirmative action, my first reaction was: while only President Nixon could go to China and only President Clinton could end welfare, only Sen. Obama could possibly consider someone who has called affirmative action “state sponsored racism that is as odious as the Jim Crow laws.” Imagine the message Sen. Obama could send about race if he chose Sen. Webb: Not only am I not some Jeremiah Wright protégé, but I’ve chosen as my partner a man who feels that the main consequence of the last 20 years of racial policy is the disparagement of whites. When I say I want to unify the country, I mean it.

Make no mistake: almost any discussion of affirmative action is fraught for Sen. Obama. As a black man, it would be difficult for him to adopt Sen. Webb’s view that affirmative action should be limited only to African Americans, leaving out Hispanics and women, two groups he desperately needs. He could lean in the direction of Sen. Webb’s other approach, allowing for class elements to be considered in hiring and college admissions, an idea about which Sen. Obama has already expressed some sympathy.

Picking a running mate with controversial views on affirmative action will surely open up a can of worms, but it is a can that will be opened anyway. The issue hasn’t arisen directly so far in part because Sen. Clinton, agreeing with Sen. Obama’s views, didn’t challenge him. Democrats are kidding themselves if they think it won’t come up in the general election. And having Sen. Webb on the ticket would enable Sen. Obama to seem reasonable and deeply respectful of anti-affirmative action views.

Sen. Obama has been able to partly traverse the rifts within the old New Deal coalition by emphasizing unifying issues like the Iraq war and the economy and through the neat trick of having been born in 1961, and therefore skipping the Vietnam-related culture wars. For younger voters, that’s sufficient. But for older voters, like the ones who voted against him in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, he has work to do.

Sen. Webb is not a safe pick. His views on women in the military could cost Sen. Obama among Clinton voters, and some Hispanics might worry about his views on affirmative action. But an Obama-Webb ticket has the potential to bring home those who left the party for Ronald Reagan and George Wallace, bridging the gap between African Americans and working class whites.