Not quite a rhetorical question
The Democratic National Convention was held in San Francisco in 1984. Presumptive nominee Walter Mondale, former vice president under Jimmy Carter, was going to have an uphill battle in his effort to oust incumbent president Ronald Reagan. In an attempt to capture the imagination of the American electorate, Mondale decided to name a woman as his running mate. The choice fell to U.S. Representative Geraldine Ferraro, a congresswoman from New York state. Despite some initial hopes that Mondale-Ferraro could upset President Reagan and Vice President George Bush in the general election, the Democrats never gained much traction. The incumbents enjoyed a landslide victory while the Democratic ticket carried only Minnesota, the home state of its presidential nominee, and the reliably Democratic District of Columbia.
Everyone knew that Mondale had narrowed his list of potential running mates to two names by the time of his party's convention. He had also seriously considered Mayor Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco, who had hosted the national party's convention with aplomb and was widely regarded as a Democrat with a bright future. Mondale balked, however, at the prospect of enduring constant scrutiny over the financial involvements of Feinstein's spouse, investment banker Richard C. Blum. While critics continue to harp on Blum's potential conflicts of interest with his wife's votes as a U.S. senator, Feinstein and Blum have weathered such accusations without visible political or financial damage to either.
Mondale might have hoped for such resilience when it turned out that Ferraro's husband, real estate agent John Zaccaro, had some problems with his tax returns. Or perhaps he wished that he had chosen Feinstein instead. In any case, the first rule of running mates is the same as the cardinal rule for doctors: “do no harm.” Actually benefiting the ticket is a pure plus. Ferraro failed that test in 1984 (just as Quayle did in 1988, but not fatally that year), and today both Obama and McCain are looking for vice-presidential candidates that will, at the very least, not hurt their campaigns and might, in the best case, actually help a little.
Sen. Obama is said to be reviewing prospective running mates with the objective of shoring up his support among potentially disaffected Democratic constituencies: women, Jews, and Hispanics. While Hillary Clinton's strong endorsement at the time of her suspension of her campaign has accelerated the process of reuniting internal factions in preparation for the fall election, an apt choice of vice-presidential candidate could perhaps seal the deal.
Several names have been bruited about. Sen. Clinton is the obvious possibility, but there's the question whether she would settle for the proverbial “bucket of warm spit” (in John Nance Garner's likely bowdlerized description of his job during the first two administrations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and whether Sen. Obama would want to offer it to her in the first place. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico could potentially bring in the Latino voters with his Hispanic heritage and Spanish language skills; Spanish-speaking voters stuck with Hillary throughout the long primary battles and Obama would like to have them on board. Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas is also certain to be on Obama's short list of prime prospects for a running mate. Sebelius is a popular and successful Democrat in a state dominated by Republicans and she would likely appeal to women and Midwestern voters. A Roman Catholic, Sebelius has been chastised by clerics in Kansas for refusing to sign into law anti-abortion measures that she says would unduly restrict women's freedom of choice.
No one is really talking about Dianne Feinstein as a possible vice-presidential nominee and no one has suggested that she is on Obama's list. Perhaps she should be. Feinstein made presidential campaign news recently when she played host to Obama and Clinton's end-of-campaign powwow. A strong Clinton supporter who had signaled it was time to close ranks behind Obama, Feinstein has good relations with both camps. While one might wish (as I do!) that Feinstein were less inclined to give President Bush the benefit of the doubt on his judicial appointments or to be more suspicious of the White House position on FISA, Sen. Feinstein has a well-established record of working effectively with both sides of the senate aisle. Her diplomatic skills are significant.
If Obama were to pick Feinstein, she could bridge the gap between his original supporters and those in Hillary's brigade. Feinstein is Jewish and could strengthen Obama's support among her coreligionists, many of whom seem to find him insufficiently pro-Israel and are being eagerly courted by McCain. Unlike Sebelius, Feinstein would not be seen as someone whom Obama was setting up to preempt Clinton's future as a national politician (whether Hillary has one is another question). Feinstein, after all, turns 75 this year and could run as a senior stateswoman. (Surely the McCain campaign would hesitate to try to use age as an issue.)
Of course, this notion that Feinstein could be a good running mate for Obama runs horribly aground on a terrible reality. The governor of California would appoint her successor in the event she is elected to the vice presidency. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Republican and no one in the Democratic ranks would want to surrender a prized seat to the opposition. Fortunately, however, there is a simple solution:
Strike a deal with Arnold.
Schwarzenegger has a good working relationship with Feinstein and would undoubtedly relish the prospect of having a friendly voice inside the White House (assuming that his preferred candidate John McCain does not win). To hedge his bets by making a side deal with the Democratic ticket, Arnold could ensure his ready access to the federal executive branch no matter what the outcome of the election. The state of Wyoming provides a useful example. When an incumbent Repubican senator died in office, the Democratic governor of Wyoming was required by state law to choose a replacement from the late incumbent's political party. California has no such law, but there is no reason that Feinstein and Schwarzenegger could not strike a similar deal. If Arnold were to pledge to appoint Feinstein's successor from a list of three names that she would provide in the event of her election as vice president, her senate seat would not switch parties. Schwarzenegger would have no particular reason to balk at such a deal and every reason to avoid reneging and poisoning his future relations with the opposition party (which dominates the California state legislature).
Is any of this going to happen? I certainly don't think so. But I've heard much worse suggestions.