Second Best

Would Clinton supporters accept Kathleen Sebelius as veep?

Barack Obama and Kathleen Sebelius

In the fantasy baseball game known as the Veepstakes, Kathleen Sebelius appears to be the complete package. She’s a popular Democratic governor in a red state. She stood up to out-of-state insurers to keep health care premiums down. She delivered the Democratic response to this year’s State of the Union address. And, best of all for Barack Obama, she’s a woman. What better way to win over disaffected Clinton supporters?

Or piss them off. Obama could also privatize health care forever, overturn Roe v. Wade, and order Hillary to make him a sandwich. At least that wouldn’t infuriate die-hard Clinton supporters as much as making Kathleen Sebelius his running mate.

It’s easy to see the logic for tapping Sebelius. Hillary Clinton put 18 million cracks in the biggest glass ceiling, as she told us in her concession speech. Why should it matter which woman shatters it? If anything, picking a woman other than Clinton reinforces the point that any woman can make it to the top.

But selecting Sebelius could backfire big time. Among the Clinton supporters I’ve spoken with, objections fell into four categories:

She’s not Hillary. “Unacceptable” was the word used by Allida Black, a longtime Clinton backer who is now pushing for an Obama/Clinton ticket. “It’s got to be Hillary.” The reason: Hillary earned it. She campaigned for 16 months, she won those 18 million votes. “It’s not just about putting a woman on the ticket,” said Denise King, a DNC member from upstate New York. It’s about picking someone who is most qualified to enact universal health care and address poverty issues. “Why you would not have that be the person most qualified to do that, woman or not, is unclear to me.”

She’s a woman.Picking Sebelius wouldn’t be an olive branch, says Black; it would be an insult: “If Senator Obama has a problem with women, putting a woman on a ticket is not going to get him their votes.” Here it gets paradoxical. It would be OK if Obama picked a man—that’s just business as usual. “Jim Webb is not a slap in the face to Hillary,” Black says. “Sebelius is.” For others, the gender thing doesn’t matter much. If Obama chose John Edwards instead of Sebelius, “I think I would have the same reaction,” says Stacy Mason of WomenCount PAC.

She’s inexperienced (like Obama). Sebelius may have logged 22 years in elected office as a congresswoman, insurance commissioner, and governor. But little of that time was spent on the national stage, several Clinton supporters pointed out. Her most high-profile gig—giving the Democratic response to Bush’s annual address—didn’t exactly inspire. She has zero foreign-policy cred. Then there’s the common refrain: What has she done? Her list of accomplishments is, in fact, quite long—more on that later—but Clinton supporters doubt it trumps Hillary’s.

Sebeli-who? If tapped, Kathleen Sebelius would become the face that launched a thousand Wikipedia searches. To most Americans, “Sebelius” probably sounds more like a Harry Potter villain than a prominent politician. For a nominee who long struggled with name recognition, Obama could use a household name as his veep. (And, no, the Sebelius household doesn’t count.) She has spent many years in the public eye—her father was governor of Ohio—but only in a few Midwestern states. Clinton is, well, Clinton.

Of course, not all Clinton backers have beef with an Obelius ticket. Many of them admire the governor—especially the ones from Kansas. Dan Lykins, the state party treasurer who endorsed Clinton, said it would be tough to choose between Clinton and Sebelius for veep: “It would be like you have a chance to select from two McDonald’s All-American basketball players to go to your college but can only pick one.”

In fact, the two women aren’t so different, Sebelius fans emphasize. Sebelius has been a strong supporter of children’s rights, expanding unemployment benefits, raising the minimum wage, and health care reform. She refused to accept donations from insurance companies when she ran for insurance commissioner. She publicly scolded President Bush for diverting the National Guard to Iraq when it was badly needed for disaster relief at home. She angered conservatives (and at least one archbishop) when she vetoed legislation that would have strengthened the state’s late-term abortion ban. Sebelius is certainly more centrist than Clinton—she carried 60 percent of the state’s conservative Saline County. But governors can’t afford to be as liberal as senators, especially when they deal with a state senate and house that are 75 percent and 80 percent Republican, respectively.

As for experience, Sebelius has accomplished a thing or two in her 60 years. Most famously, she prevented an Indiana-based health insurer from buying out Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Kansas, arguing that the shift would raise premiums. She vetoed legislation for building two big coal plants in western Kansas—four times. She pushed a $500 million education funding package through a deeply divided legislature. And she eliminated a $1.1 billion debt without raising taxes.

The problem is, nobody knows any of this—at least not yet. Many Clinton supporters now see Kathleen Sebelius as The Other Woman. She’s not a politician with her own individual record; she’s Obama’s sorry pander. Whatever her merits, hard-core Clinton supporters equate Sebelius with appeasement.

This could change. But if Obama wants to pick Sebelius, he’ll have to sell her on her merits, not as a Hillary replacement. Only then will he quiet the refrain among Sebelius’ detractors that she and Clinton are not “interchangeable.” Given Sebelius’ record, Obama has some decent material to work with. But, ultimately, Clinton supporters may be too mad to credit it. Sure,the thinking goes, Hillary Clinton has dedicated her life to putting a woman in the White House. But not that woman.