Those approaches can be wanting in analysis and context. The pundits tell us, for example, that certain candidates — such as the Democratic governors of Kansas and Virginia, Kathleen Sebelius and Tim Kaine — lack foreign policy experience.
But how significant is that as a factor considering that so many of our leaders were similarly lacking before they assumed national office? And to what extent can experience in that area be isolated from issues of good judgment and political skill?
We are associating these latter qualities less and less with John McCain, who is now the puppet of the very operatives who destroyed his 2000 presidential bid through lies, distortions and innuendo.
The Manchurian-turned-Rovian candidate stated recently that Osama bin Laden’s movement is backed by Iran, only to be corrected publicly by ally Sen. Joe Lieberman. John McCain’s grappling with the not-so-subtle differences between Iraq and Iran, and Sunnis and Shiites, is less important to some, it seems, than Sen. Barack Obama’s query about the price of arugula at Whole Foods.
Let’s not be surprised. Vice President Dick Cheney can still insist, against all of the best evidence offered by his own intelligence chiefs, that there was a close link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.
Unfortunately, in the Bush-Cheney years strength has become confused with belligerence. And now instead of being admired around the globe, our leaders are reviled. The 2008 Republican candidate might be an improvement on that score, but he seems incapable of being diplomatic even in the colloquial sense. His joke about killing ordinary Iranians with cigarettes was just that — a joke. But do you think that if Hugo Chavez, for example, said something similar about America’s citizens, it wouldn’t be presented on Fox News as further evidence that he’s a psycho?
The pundits undervalue, too, the contact and experience that politicians outside the beltway have had dealing with the wider world. While Dick Cheney has remained at a secure location, Gov. Sebelius has traveled to several countries to promote Kansas’ interests. Of course, the vice president has gone overseas to meet the troops, but so has Sebelius, who visited Kansan soldiers serving in the Middle East at Thanksgiving in 2005.
Almost 30 years ago, Gov. Kaine showed a seriousness of purpose and curiosity about the world when he took a year out of Harvard Law School to work as a Jesuit lay missionary in Honduras. That sojourn (and Mitt Romney’s 30 months doing similar work in France for the Mormons) is the sort of exposure that no amount of hours in the library or a Senate committee room can match.
Another factor blown out of proportion by the pundits is the candidates’ “Catholic problem.” This is not the old prejudice — but a relatively new one, a trap indeed set by Republicans that affects most mainstream Democrats of Irish extraction, which Sebelius and Kaine both are.
No sooner had those governors’ names been cited, along with Senators Joe Biden and Jack Reed, as vice-presidential material than one self-styled Catholic lobbying group and “news agency” hit the web advising Obama not to pick any of them. In fact, that group and others like it are Republican-founded and funded.
It’s true that Sebelius has been told by Bishop Joseph Naumann — one the GOP’s favored churchmen — not to present herself for communion because of her views on abortion laws.
Yet no politician, as far as I’m aware, has been refused communion for voting for a “war of choice” in which tens of thousands of men, women and children have lost their lives and nor indeed for signing off on the execution of a mentally retarded or innocent prisoner.
And public figures aren’t ever honored by conservative prelates for trying to eradicate poverty — which is a more important factor in a society’s abortion rate than its legal availability.
Kaine has a certain advantage over Sebelius in that Virginia’s bishops are moderates. One of them, Francis Xavier DiLorenzo of Richmond, has spoken of the need for “an integrated approach to the Right to Life.” Bishop DiLorenzo is prudently taking the long view. The Catholic Church has often regretted sidling up to the powerful and privileged (witness the souring of the Spanish hierarchy’s cozy relationship with General Franco after about 30 years).
And Kaine’s Catholic faith, as is known by now, is part of his political identity. In contrast, Sebelius follows the path of JFK and Nelson Mandela and most other politicians through the 20th century — her religious views, she argues, are largely a private matter. Most Irish Catholic politicians over the generations insisted, too, that their faith was not directly relevant to how they governed. Now some find themselves accused of not being religious enough, especially if they’re intent on legislating for the majority.
Perhaps, though, Sebelius’s more low-key approach in this area would complement Obama’s, which is rather more overtly religious than is usual for a Democratic candidate running on the national ticket.
Another objection to the Kansas governor is the view that her elevation would be insulting to Hillary Clinton and her supporters. But why should this argument only apply to Sebelius and not to Kaine or Biden or Chris Dodd or Evan Bayh?
And it’s not as if she’s come from nowhere. She was mentioned as a vice-presidential candidate as far back as 2004 and as a possible presidential candidate for this election cycle.
Sebelius is hailed as a successful governor — she was named as one of America’s top five by Time magazine at the end of 2005. She’s gone one better than Jack Gilligan, the other half of the only father/daughter pairing to become governors in American history. Former Rep. Gilligan was Ohio’s top elected official from 1971 to 1975, but lost a narrow reelection bid to his predecessor. Sebelius, in contrast, was reelected in a 2006 landslide. Democrats nationally were impressed with how Gilligan’s daughter broadened her popularity and skillfully navigated the politics of the Republican-majority state of Kansas.
Hillary supporters would eventually come to see that she is as impressive as their hero, albeit in different ways. And, like the New York senator, she looks the part. Indeed, if picked, Kathleen Sebelius would surely become a political star within a short time.