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Veep Veep: Keep An Eye On Jack Reed

On "Meet the Press" this morning Andrea Mitchell name-dropped Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island as a possible vice presidential contender for Barack Obama--observing, among other things, that Reed will be joining Obama on his upcoming trip to Iraq.

Along with some colleagues and friends, I've been watching Reed for a while now. And, as recently as a week ago, I was on the verge of posting a long item touting him as a strong, if relatively unheralded, vice presidential possibility. Here's what I'd been planning to say--and why, despite his considerable credentials, his candidacy might be a problem.

Not a lot of people know much about Reed. Heck, not a lot of people even know who Reed is. But he's got an impressive biography. He grew up in a working-class Catholic family. His father, Joseph, was a World War II veteran who worked his way up from school janitor to custodial supervisor of the Cranston school system; his mother, Mary, was a housewife whose hopes of education beyond high school died in the Great Depression. Both parents emphasized education and learning, making sure to buy the Encyclopedia Britannica despite their limited means; young Jack became a history buff and, inspired in part by the example of John F. Kennedy--and in part, one suspects, by his father--decided to pursue a life in military service. In 1969, he won admission to West Point.

Reed would go on to become an Army Ranger and paratrooper--picking up a master's in public policy along the way--until leaving the military, as a captain, in 1979. That's when he entered Harvard Law School. From there, a short stint in private law led to a career in Rhode Island politics, where he worked his way up from the state Senate to the U.S. House and, eventually, the U.S. Senate--effectively breaking a grip on that office held, previously, by the state's political aristrocracy.

(For more on his personal biography, check out this excellent Providence Journal profile. It's one of the sources I consulted.)

In office, Reed has focused on important but not always sexy domestic policy issues, like public housing. He's also developed a lot of expertise on education. But mostly he's known for his work on foreign policy and national security. A longtime member of the Armed Services Committee, he has, I am told, the almost-universal respect of both his colleagues from both parties as well as the military brass. When he accompanies Obama to Iraq, it will be his twelfth trip there.

As readers of this space know, I've long argued that the fitness to serve as president if necessary and the ability to help the president govern in office are the two most important criteria for choosing a running mate. From what I can tell, and have been able to learn in informal conversations the last few weeks, Reed fits that description as well as anybody in the party. He's bright and fluent in policy, knows his way around Washington, and is--by all accounts--squeaky clean on ethics issues. ("A boy scout" is how one longtime associate in Washington described him to me.) He also showed the same good judgment about the Iraq War that Obama did: He opposed it from the very beginning.

Reed's passion for public housing is an added bonus, as far as I'm concerned. Generally a victim of media and political neglect, public housing is one of those issues for which policy-makers actually have some innovative ideas--like the HOPE VI project--that might have a chance to make a real difference if only they got the attention they needed.*

Insiders who dismiss Reed as running mate material usually start with an obvious political drawback: Rhode Island. Quite apart from its tiny electoral vote contribution, it's part of a region--New England--that (except for New Hampshire perhaps) is as safe as they come for the Democrats. But Reed's biography ought to be enough to offset that. Whatever he lacks in geographic appeal he should make up for demographic appeal to working-class Catholic voters. Reporters could be counted upon to rehash his life story; and, conveniently, his relative anonymity means he's one of the party's few veteran lawmakers who could plausibly carry the message of "change."

Another geography issue is the question of Reed's Senate seat--which, frankly, is a much bigger deal. The laws about filling vacant seats remain a little fuzzy to me. (Yes, I should have figured this out by now. I'm working on it...) It's not clear if Rhode Island's Republican governor would get to appointment a replacement immediately or whether the seat would get filled in a special selection. Then again, Rhode Island is sufficiently liberal that it could be counted upon to elect--or send through gubernatorial appointment--somebody who would at least vote with the Democrats on many if not most issues, regardless of party affiliation.

So what's giving me pause? Reed's appearance on ABC News "This Week" last Sunday. He was there as an Obama surrogate, squaring off against Joe Lieberman, who was speaking for John McCain. And Reed was, I thought, terrible. Over and over again, Lieberman made harsh accusations about Obama--that Obama was irresponsible, radically changing his positions, etc. And Reed seemed capable neither of answering those criticisms or launching similar ones against McCain. (And, no, this is not because Lieberman was right; mostly, I thought, Lieberman was wrong.)

It's no secret that Reed isn't the most lively and exciting speaker. And, by itself, that's not a huge deal, since Obama has enough charisma for the entire ticket. If anything, picking a reserved, steady running mate might help Obama assuage voters who find the prospect of electing such a young and dynamic candidate unnerving.

But debating ability is an essential skill for the vice president, and not just in the campaign: A successful president needs a surrogate who can fight for him. Charisma may not be important, but the ability to hit back against critics is--particularly for somebody like Obama, whose appeal rests in part on his ability to transcend (or, at least, to seem to transcend) such fights.

It may be that Reed just had a bad day. But that's the problem with somebody ike Reed who, although boasting a long and impressive resume in politics, has not spent much time in the glare of the national media spotlight. It's hard to know.

Nothing bad can come of Reed getting time in the spotlight. If nothing else, at a time when people increasingly associate the Republicans with irresponsible foreign policy, it's nice to remind everybody that Democrats like Reed offer an alternative. Many also have their eyes on Reed as a candidate for Defense Secretary in the next administration--a job for which, by all accounts, he'd be perfect.

But who knows. Maybe Obama will decide that Reed is cut out for the vice presidency after all. And maybe he'll be right.

*Update: Reader gurdjieff66 reminds me of Hanna Rosin's recent Atlantic article, which cast a lot of skepticism on Hope VI and some of the other promising housing initiatives of the last few years. That's worth a whole separate discussion. So I will merely add that I have no idea whether Reed is actually a fan of Hope VI itself. All I know is that housing policy generally--and not just public housing, as I wrote above--has been a passion of his. (Such are the perils of hasty blogging.) If Reed does emerge as a serious contender, I'll make the time to do a more detailed look at his policy background. In the meantime, go read Hanna's sobering and important article.

--Jonathan Cohn 

 Related: TNR's Veeptacular