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Kathleen Sebelius: The iPod Veep

The Kansas governor may lack spice, but her executive experience will help Obama create a government that's sleek and user-friendly.

The last few weeks have seen plenty of obsessing over who Barack Obama and John McCain ought to pick to be their running mates. But for all the endless discussion about which candidate might best bolster Obama's message or help McCain carry Ohio, the electoral implications of any given veep pick are, as my colleague Josh Patashnik has argued, greatly overrated. So the candidates probably shouldn't spend too much time worrying about all those horse-race considerations and should instead just focus on selecting someone who doesn't raise any obvious red flags, will work well within the administration, and would, in a pinch, make a good president.

And, if we're playing by those ground rules, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius is an ideal pick for Obama. Granted, she doesn’t offer many campaign-season advantages. She's a woman, and that's hugely significant in its own right--the prospect of busting through two glass ceilings in November would be remarkable--but early polls don't actually show Sebelius luring any additional female voters to the Democratic side. (In any case, her appeal to women might be counterbalanced by all those hardened Hillary Clinton supporters who are reportedly livid at the thought that Obama would pick a non-Hillary female running mate.) And while Sebelius is a popular governor from a red state, the odds of her delivering Kansas for Obama are slim.

But assuming that Obama's search committee doesn't uncover any major scandals-in-waiting, Sebelius wouldn't drag down the Obama campaign, either. Yes, her State of the Union response this year was a clunker, but Obama is more than rousing enough for two people, and who knows, some voters might actually like what Camille Paglia called Sebelius's "cordial, smoothly reassuring, and blandly generic WASPiness."

That just leaves the big question: Would Sebelius actually make a good vice president (and, for that matter, president)?  After six years as governor, she's proven that she knows her stuff when it comes to policy--see, for example, this wonky interview she did a few years ago, covering everything from health care to the economy. She's a deft political operator, as evidenced by her ability to persuade a bunch of Kansas Republicans to switch parties back in 2006. And she knows how to survive, and win, grueling political brawls--as when, this past year, she thrice vetoed plans for new coal-fired plants in Kansas, in the face of ads associating her with Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The only substantive knock against her is that she has little foreign policy experience, which is a genuine drawback; but, in the end, there are still plenty of cabinet positions for people like Joe Biden and Sam Nunn.

Sebelius's biggest strength is the fact that she's the most competent executive of any of the rumored Democratic veep candidates, save for possibly former Virginia governor Mark Warner (whom the Democrats need to win a Senate seat anyway). The fact that, as governor, she erased a $1.1 billion budget deficit in her first year of office without raising taxes, and later steered a large education-funding package through a fractious legislature, would suggest that she's perfectly capable of heading up the executive branch--and doing it well.

And it's not just Sebelius's experience, but the nature of her experience, that makes her a good fit in an Obama administration in particular. Take her two-term tenure as Kansas's insurance commissioner, which hasn't received much attention to date. Before Sebelius's surprise victory in 1994, the state had only had three commissioners in its previous 50 years, all career bureaucrats. Between its creaking IT system and morass of useless regulations, the agency had become hidebound and utterly useless to the consumers it was supposed to represent. Not only did Sebelius turn the department around, but she wrenched it out from under the influence of the insurance industry. (It helped that she pointedly refused to take campaign contributions from insurers.) In the process, she transformed the department into a driver of progressive policy, successfully pushing to expand tax credits for businesses that provide health insurance and creating an anti-fraud unit to monitor predatory insurers. Most famously, she blocked an Indiana insurer from acquiring Blue Cross–Blue Shield of Kansas on the grounds that it would unfairly raise premiums.

Good-government reforms can be dry and unexciting, but Sebelius's track record actually jibes well with Obama's belief that the U.S. government is broken and needs to be retooled before liberal policies can ever have a prayer of working. That vision explains why Obama's website is crammed full of open-government proposals, why he focuses so much of his time on ethics bills, and why his advisers love to tout his vision of an "iPod government" that's sleek, user-friendly, and flexible enough to confront new problems as they arise.

Of course, many liberals would argue that substantive issues like Iraq, climate change, and health care ought to take precedence over goo-goo reforms, and that outflanking congressional Republicans (or pounding them into submission) is the only way to get stuff done in Washington. There's a lot of merit to that view. But it's also true that, after eight long years of the Bush administration, most of the executive branch is lying in tatters: Homeland Security remains dysfunctional, the Justice Department spends much of its time on voter suppression, and most of the regulatory agencies have been overrun by the very companies they were meant to oversee. At this point, it's become hard to believe that the same government responsible for Michael Brown's FEMA could capably oversee, say, a radical restructuring of the nation's energy markets. But if Obama wants to change all that, Sebelius would be a fine pick as second-in-command.

Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor at The New Republic.

Click here to read all of TNR's Veep Week Coverage.