After more than two decades on the quadrennial short-list, the idea of former Georgia senator Sam Nunn as vice president has become a cliché. And knocking him down is easy. You know the rap. He's too old (69), too rusty politically (out of the Senate since 1996) and too conservative (he helped design the don't-ask-don't-tell policy on gays in the military in the early 1990s). Plus, he's dull.
But Nunn may be the best pick for Barack Obama in a year when the presumptive Democratic nominee has no obvious choices. If some potential candidate could immediately offer strength to Obama on the economy, he should pick him or her. But no one fits that bill, which leaves the field open to a foreign policy heavyweight who could help compensate for the slim resume of a freshman senator. The notion that Obama would be better off pretending this weakness didn't exist—that he should double down on change with a young running mate—ignores the readiness bar Obama still needs to clear.
"The odds are very much against it and I don't expect to be offered it," Nunn said July 3 at the Aspen Ideas Festival, looking a lot younger and more fit than, say, John McCain. That's a pitch-perfect version of the coy dodge expected of all serious candidates for the job.
The main reason Nunn has a chance is that Obama has told his advisers that he won't choose anyone who lacks the stature to be perceived immediately as a plausible president. This makes any short list much shorter. Kathleen Sebelius and Ted Strickland, for instance, are good governors but they just aren't going to make that cut; Nunn's foreign policy experience, unquestioned intelligence, and big thinking assure that he does.
In Nunn's case, out of the Senate doesn't mean out of the action. His record in the 12 years since he left is impressive. Nunn and Sen. Richard Lugar have, with little public attention, managed to reduce the greatest security threat in the world—loose nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. The Nunn-Lugar initiative has been a huge success and a Nobel Prize is a distinct possibility.
When Obama came to the Senate, he locked onto Nunn-Lugar as his primary foreign policy interest. The only major piece of legislation that bear Obama's name is the Lugar-Obama Initiative, which secures loose conventional weapons using the same protocols. Don't underestimate the importance to Obama of selecting a vice-president who shares his world view.
Last month, Nunn, who chairs the Nuclear Threat Institute, joined with several formers secretaries of state and defense in writing a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that offers a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons altogether—and specific proposals for how to get there. Nunn goes further than some of his co-authors and advocates the once-heretical idea of the United States allowing cameras and international inspectors inside its nuclear weapons facilities.
While nuclear non-proliferation is unlikely to be a first tier campaign issue, the public education that would accompany the selection of Nunn would reflect positively on Obama. A campaign narrative focused on the nuclear dangers of Iran and Pakistan, where both Democrats are well-informed, would lend the Democratic ticket some gravitas. And Nunn's opposition to the war in Iraq from the outset would help make McCain's pro-war position seem like the one out of the mainstream.
The conventional view is that choosing someone perceived as experienced on foreign policy would make Obama look insecure, as if he wasn't confident of his own strengths on these issues. The other, more persuasive view is that in such a big Democratic year there's only one way Obama loses—the way Charlie Black suggested, with a terrorist attack on American soil. Should that happen, a Democratic ticket without someone like Nunn would be highly vulnerable.
Selecting Nunn would be a defensive move but not a weak one. That's because the choice would have its own doubling down effect, reinforcing Obama's support for ending the war in the context of greater support for veterans and the military, and for shifting the Pentagon's emphasis in the Middle East from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Nunn also makes it clear that he backs Obama's position on talking to Iran. "You can't have a dialogue when you have a pre-condition to beginning that dialogue," he said in Aspen, sounding like a man who could dispense with John McCain's appeasement analogies with a wave of the hand.
And Nunn might offer a bit more boldness than those who covered him in the Senate may remember. When asked about the U.S. embargo against Cuba, he said: "To show that I'm not running for anything, the policy is counter-productive and should have been changed long ago. It's biggest beneficiary is Castro."
In fact, that doesn't show he's uninterested in the vice-presidency because support for lifting the trade embargo is no longer political suicide in Florida. Obama himself hinted at a policy shift when traveling in the state recently.
The biggest stumbling block in selecting Nunn is his support in 1993 for a Pentagon study that backed a don't-ask-don't-tell policy for gays in the military. Nunn's position now is a mixture of new rhetoric ("I'm grateful to the thousands of gays and lesbians serving today") and a willingness to "review the policy" with an eye toward "eventually" changing it.
This won't be nearly enough for the gay and lesbian community and other liberals, for whom a controversial position of 15 years ago is still fresh. But, contrary to what many assume, this constituency does not have a veto over Obama's choice. And after pleasing gay rights groups by expressing his opposition to a California ballot initiative that would change the state constitution to bar gay marriage, Obama has some room to maneuver.
The blunt political truth is that Nunn's history on this issue might actually help the Democratic ticket in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. While gays would protest loudly if Nunn is the nominee, his selection would show Obama's independent streak in standing up to a powerful Democratic interest group.
On the stump, Nunn wouldn't be exciting, but he doesn't have to be. The Democrats have plenty of excitement at the top of the ticket. In fact, it's exactly Nunn's dull and staid persona that could help voters leery of too much change overcome their misgivings about Obama. He's white, Southern and comfortable.
The flap over his being forced to quit the Augusta National Golf Club because it doesn't admit women (inevitable if he's nominated) might discourage a few voters for a few days. But Nunn is pro-choice and strong on the environment and other core Democratic issues. His conservative Senate votes are mostly on 20-year-old tax and budget issues that aren't likely to be relevant. Overall, the advantages of an unthreatening moderate with strong national security credentials, a disciplined mouth (not true of Joe Biden or Jim Webb) and a calming mien outweigh any loss of liberals.
The last argument you hear about Nunn is that we don't need another Dick Cheney. But that reflects a lazy-minded comparison between George W. Bush and Obama, who is hardly going to give Nunn or any other vice president the run of the White House. Besides, Cheney's reputation on national security was helpful in getting Bush elected in 2000.
First, you have to win. General elections are fought in the middle, which is exactly where Sam Nunn sits. They are fought over independents and moderate swing voters, who would like Nunn. Above all, he would help lift his party's presidential nominee over the threshold of credibility that, for all the positive polls for Democrats, still stands between Barack Hussein Obama and the presidency.