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Veep Veep: Still Watching Jack Reed

No, I don't have any new information. As far as I know, Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed may never have been a serious contender to join Barack Obama on the ticket--in no small part because Reed has said, repeatedly and with apparent sincerity, that he has no interest in the job. We certainly aren't hearing about Reed the way we are hearing about Evan Bayh, Joe Biden, and Tim Kaine.

But it would be perfectly in character for the Obama campaign, which has proven remarkably adept at keeping its vice presidential search confidential, to surprise everybody with a choice that's not been part of the conversation lately. So it seems worth mentioning that, since I first wrote about Reed a few weeks ago, several folks who work on Capitol Hill have told me how much they like Reed for his smarts, his seriousness, and his sincerity. "Everybody respects him," one consultant told me.

Is that enough? No. The case against Reed, again, goes like this: He's a dull speaker, an unproven surrogate, and a neophyte in the national spotlight. Plus Rhode Island is about as safe a state as the Democrats have. (Also, it's not clear whether his Senate seat would fall into Republican hands.)

Still, there's an awful lot to like about Reed. He comes from a working-class Catholic background. That might help politically. He also has a storngly progressive voting record that he developed, in part, by developing real expertise on education and housing policy.  That might help substantively.  He's been around Washington for a while, but his quiet, modest manner make him the very opposite of your typical Washington politician. (He's pretty much the antithesis of celebrity, for whatever that is worth.) And, perhaps most important, he's a West Point grad and former Army Ranger who has become one of his party's--indeed, one of the nation's--foremost authorities on Iraq.  

Here's what Gerald Seib, writing last month in the Wall Street Journal, had to say about that: 

[Reed] began to stand out on Iraq when he was one of 21 Democrats to vote against a resolution authorizing use of force in 2002. Once the war began, though, he adjusted, pushing for more funding for the conflict, and specifically money to ease the strains on his old service, the Army.

He also began a series of regular trips to Iraq, noteworthy for their emphasis on getting out of the protective bubble in Baghdad and into the field for interviews with Army officers, some of whom he knows from his own Army days. After each trip, he composes a lengthy written report and circulates several hundred copies to members of Congress and Army officers. What has emerged from all this has been an intense focus on changing the role U.S. troops are playing in Iraq. He has been more cautious on an Iraq withdrawal than has Sen. Obama. While Sen. Obama has, as a presidential candidate, declared that he would start a withdrawal immediately and complete it within 16 months, Sen. Reed hasn’t adopted that fixed timetable as his position.

Instead, his efforts in the Senate have focused on pushing repeatedly, in an amendment he sponsors with Michigan Sen. Carl Levin*, to change the mission for U.S. troops from combat and security to counterterrorism and training. That amendment has been offered in various forms, and in one version called for making this change in mission within nine months, but has focused more on the mission and a phased withdrawal than on a timetable.

Two other consistent themes run through the Reed critique on Iraq. The first has been that political changes by the Iraqi government were more important than military progress. And the second has been concern for the strains a drawn-out conflict are putting on his beloved Army. Like Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel Nebraska, another former ground-combat man and Sen. Obama’s other traveling companion this week, that concern reflects the Army grunt’s view of war.

Sen. Reed hasn’t always been right on Iraq. The report he wrote after a visit to Iraq this past January appears, in retrospect, too downbeat on the prospects for President Bush's troop surge. But he has clearly influenced Sen. Obama. Among other things, he advised him that a good way to get some unfiltered information about what is happening on the ground is to talk to junior officers and to journalists on the scene, both of which Sen. Obama has done.

Obama has always said he's primarily concerned with picking a running mate whom he trusts and who can help him govern effectively. Plus, of course, he wants somebody the nation can trust to take over the presidency in an emergency. It would seem that Reed satisfies those criteria as well as anybody.

*Yes, I still like Levin, too. But he was never on the list, as far as I know.

--Jonathan Cohn