Choosing A Vice President
Posted on July 21, 2008
The New York Times had an interesting article the other day on how both the Obama and McCain campaigns were decided who their Vice Presidential candidates would be. I was asked on Hardball what kind of candidate McCain would pick and I mumbled through some answer about youth and economic fortitude. What I should have said was that McCain should make his choice based on two key criteria: Can that person handle the job of President and can that person help McCain become President?
When our current President picked Dick Cheney to be Vice President, it was a bit of a surprise to say the least. Cheney had been out of elective office for eight years, had never expressed any interest in getting back into the game, and didn’t have a huge national constituency that could help Bush get elected.
What Cheney did have was the gravitas and the know-how to be President, and Cheney’s deep experience gave Bush a big boost to many who had some concerns about his relatively light resume.
Al Gore gave Governor Bill Clinton the same kind of boost, when he ran with Clinton in 1992. Clinton was pretty inexperienced internationally at that time, and Gore had a longer Washington-type experience, having invented the Internet after all.
In a similar vein, George W. Bush gave Ronald Reagan a great deal of heft with his experiences at the CIA, and Lyndon Johnson gave John Kennedy that same kind of experience boost in 1960.
Johnson also gave Kennedy a regional balance that proved useful. That also seemed to work for Mondale and Carter and again for Johnson and Humphrey in 1964.
It is still unclear why George Bush picked Dan Quayle or why Nixon picked Spiro Agnew. Neither brought much to the table (Agnew did bring some very excellent speechwriters and Quayle brought Bill Cyrstol, but that is about it).
For the campaigns that didn’t win, the Vice President played an important role in their defeat. Joe Lieberman hurt the Gore campaign in the Florida recount by saying that military ballots should be counted. John Edwards refused to be an attack dog for John Kerrey. Geraldine Ferraro did nothing for Mondale, other than invite scrutiny of her husband’s business deals. Jack Kemp jogged through the fall campaign for Dole, and Dole turned off voters when he was too much of an attack dog for Ford. Tom Eagleton caused all kinds of problems for George McGovern in a campaign that already had too many problems. Losing campaigns have losing Vice Presidential nominees (the best exception to that rule was Lloyd Bentsen, who should have been the Presidential nominee. But his good performance served to undermine the performance of his running mate, Michael Dukakis, who looked weak in comparison).
Much has been made about personal chemistry, but that may be overrated as an attribute in a Presidental campaign. The role of the Vice Presidential nominee is to help make the Presidential nominee look good and to do whatever it takes to get them over the finish line. Johnson didn’t love the Kennedys but he was every bit as good at stealing elections as they were, so it was a good fit. Reagan didn’t love Bush, but the Vice Presidential nominee was a good soldier who modified his position on abortion and became a supply-sider, no matter how much voodoo it involved.
Having two Senators on a ticket is usually the kiss of death, although that certainly wasn’t the case in 1960. Still, if I were either Obama or McCain, I would think long and hard about picking a Senate colleague.
Governors pick Senators to give them an entrée into the world of Washington. Senators pick Governors to give them an entrée into the rest of the world. This will be one of the few times that a former Vice President is not on the ballot in one way or another. While only four Vice Presidents have won elections as President following their term as VP, fourteen Vice President have eventually become President, usually through the death of the President. So, while it may be a job as isn’t worth a bucket of warm piss, as John Nance Gardner famously put it, when you are Vice President, you are betting on the come that you will eventually be in the top job. And that is why the job itself is held in such high regard by those who might want it.