Wednesday, July 23, 2008

VP Profile: Kathleen Sebelius

Age: 60
Current Position: Governor of Kansas
Former Positions of Importance:
  • Kansas Insurance Commissioner, 1994-2002
  • Member, Kansas House of Representatives, 1986-1994
Pros: Arguably represents the prototype of a 21st century Democrat who can win in the reddest of red states. Kansas hasn't voted for a Democrat since Gaius Marius ran for consul in 100 BC on a populist platform. But Sebelius was elected governor in 2002 by a solid margin, in large part because she successfully exploited the long-standing economic conservative/social conservative division within the state's Republican Party. When she won the insurance commissioner office in 1994, she became the first Democrat in 100 years to do so. She won re-election in 2006 by more than 17 percentage points. Understand how impressive that is; Republicans vastly out-number Democrats in this state. She's clearly quite adept at succeeding in a hostile environment.

While Obama could completely win over the angry Clinton supporters by nominating Hillary, Sebelius would be a nice consolation prize if he decides to avoid that particular whirlwind. They might not know much about Sebelius, but they could identify with the way she's had to fight in a conservative, male-dominated Kansas political climate.

None of the TV pundits know how to pronounce her last name. That would be pretty amusing for awhile.

Sebelius would be a helpful presence in an Obama administration. She has six years of executive experience as governor, and it's highly regarded executive experience. (TIME named her one of the best governors in the country in 2005) Even her work as insurance commissioner was applauded.

Cons: Yes, Sebelius has legitimate experience, but not the right kind of experience. She hasn't traveled in foreign lands, negotiated with dictators or gained any kind of recognition as a domestic policy wonk. She isn't going to elevate Obama's profile with her very presence the way other candidates might. Seriously, look at that "Former Positions of Importance" list. Is anyone going to be terribly impressed by "Kansas Insurance Commissioner?"

While Sebelius deserves credit for winning in a conservative environment, the context of her gubernatorial victories is important. She won in 2002 in large part because of conflicts within the Republican Party and the lack of an inspiring Republican candidate. By all accounts she did a skillful job navigating the terrain, but she also had the good luck of avoiding the extremely popular incumbent governor Bill Graves, who was term-limited and couldn't run a third time.

Sebelius doesn't bring any geographic appeal to the ticket. The Obama campaign is making the right noises about competing in Kansas, and they have an office here, but they're not winning the state. The best they could hope for is to make McCain's running mate spend a few hours in Kansas and a single digit defeat come election day. Sebelius doesn't have great appeal in the Midwest outside of her home state; the Kansas-Missouri dynamic is such that voters in the swing state aren't going to be persuaded by the presence of a Kansan on the ticket.

Her maiden name is "Gilligan."

Verdict: Sebelius seems to be a popular choice, but I don't see it, unless Obama's desperate for a woman not named Hillary Clinton. She's hardly a dynamic figure, and this choice wouldn't let Obama dominate the newscycle like other options. It's hard to see where the campaign could utilize her on the electoral map; she was born in Ohio and spent some childhood years in Michigan, but that means less than nothing. ("I don't like Obama and his positions, but I lived next to the Gilligans for years. They're good people. Never stole my newspaper.")

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