Opinion: The importance of a good Number 2

by Stephen Tall on August 30, 2008

What makes a good deputy? The question is of acute relevance today owing to Senator John McCain’s decision to pick Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential nominee. Her positives have already been well-rehearsed: a young, instinctive, deeply conservative female, with a son about to serve in Iraq. Her negatives have also been loudly broadcast: she has just 18 months experience as the governor of one of the USA’s smaller states, yet could be the 45th president of a superpower within a matter of months should anything happen to her 72 year-old running mate.

Senator McCain’s reason for choosing her is clear: Governor Palin represents his best chance of swinging the momentum of the presidential campaign to the Republican side. Would any of us be discussing his choice now had he picked Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty or even Joe Lieberman? No, we would still be assessing the impact of Senator Obama’s remarkable convention speech, and speculating just how far short would Senator McCain fall when he attempts to match his rival next week. To that extent, her selection is an inspired piece of strategy, which severely wrong-foots the Democrats (as evidenced by their gauche and ungracious response).

But Senator McCain’s choice is disturbing, as this brilliant posting by Andrew Sullivan makes clear:

Think about how the key factor in this decision was not who could defend this country were something dreadful happen to McCain in office but how to tread as much on Obama’s convention bounce and use women’s equality as a wedge issue among Democrats because it might secure a few points here or there. Oh, and everyone would be surprised. And even Rove would be annoyed. This is his sense of honor and judgment. This is his sense of responsibility and service. Here’s the real slogan the McCain campaign should now adopt:

Putting. Country. Last.

For in choosing Governor Palin, Senator McCain has acted in his own short-term interests. He didn’t chose her because she was the best person for the job, but because she was the person most likely to land him the job he wants. What is being lauded today by many as smart tactics will appear shabby opportunism if her boss were incapacitated in the middle of an international crisis.

The Obama camp will have seriously considered the strong likelihood that Senator McCain would choose a female vice-president, though perhaps not her identity. They could themselves have selected a female running mate, whether Hillary Clinton or anyone else, and decided not to do so. Of course it would have been riskier – is the US ready to elect a black President and female Vice-President on the same ticket? – while McCain’s campaign needs an edge to compete with the excitement whipped-up by Senator Obama’s candidacy. But Senator Obama chose not to go down that route. He wanted someone he could both trust, and be believed would be ready to be President in the worst case. His pick wasn’t inspired, it was responsible.

The choice of your running mate is the first really big decision a presidential candidate has to make. Senator McCain, supposedly the guy with the experience to be trusted with big decisions, took a punt on an unknown to extract partisan advantage. Senator Obama rejected the dazzle of a flashy pick, and steered the moderate, sensible course. Which says it all, really.

And brings me back to my original question: what makes a good deputy? I remember there was some mumbling of discontent when Vince Cable was elected by his Commons colleagues as Ming Campbell’s deputy – does it really look good, it was argued, for the Lib Dems to choose two ageing, bald, grey men to take on the party’s leadership?

Yet when Ming unexpectedly resigned the party discovered it had an unassuming political superstar at its helm. Perhaps Vince’s two rivals, Matthew Taylor and David Heath, would have made an equally good fist of the job. But the fact is that Vince was ready, the right guy for the job at the right time. And that is the true measure of a smart choice for deputy.