Tod Lindberg

Picking a veep

Posted by Tod Lindberg on August 15th, 2006

The Washington Times

Nobody, as we discussed here last week, ever decreased his chance of getting elected president by running for vice president. (Well, maybe Dan Quayle, whom George H.W. Bush did the huge disservice of selecting for the veep slot before Mr. Quayle was ready for the spotlight.) But what kind of criteria should a presidential nominee and those in his inner circle of advisors adopt in picking a veep? It seems to me that there are four main considerations (which can overlap, of course).

First of all is party unity. Primary contests can be bitter affairs, and what any nominee wants coming out of the summer nominating convention is a party that has united in its enthusiasm for the ticket. Sometimes this is harder than at other times. It’s especially relevant when the party has been divided during the primaries between the personalities of various presidential aspirants and also along factional lines based on ideology, geography or some other grand point of contention.

When Ronald Reagan got the nomination in 1980, he reached out to his chief primary rival, George H.W. Bush. That’s not just because Mr. Bush had proven himself a vote-getter and a reasonably effective campaigner. It’s also because Mr. Reagan represented the newly empowered, activist “conservative movement” within the party, and Mr. Bush did not: Rather, he was an establishment figure, without ideological preoccupations. His conservatism was based on prudence, not deeply-held principle. To some Republicans with anxieties about the radicalism of Mr. Reagan’s challenge to the status quo, Mr. Bush was a reassuring choice.

The second criterion is balance of one sort or another. When John Kerry selected John Edwards, one again, he looked to his principal opponent, who was the last man standing against him. But his reasons could not have been more different from those motivating Mr. Reagan. Mr. Kerry didn’t have an obvious rift in the party to contend with. By the time he got the nomination, he represented a party consensus on who was best positioned to take on George W. Bush. But Mr. Kerry cannot have failed to notice his own patrician New England upbringing. And Mr. Edwards, a Southerner whose origins weren’t anywhere near so lofty, brought a little regional and social-class balance as well as a youthful demeanor.    

Party unity can also be a factor in balance: Was Joe Lieberman Al Gore’s choice because Mr. Lieberman is from Connecticut and Mr. Gore from Tennessee, or was he meant to help hold the party’s middle ground as Mr. Gore positioned himself slightly to the left of the “New Democrat” Bill Clinton? It’s not entirely clear to this day.   

A third criterion is the possibility of direct electoral benefit in the short run, like bringing a key state or a broad swath of voters home for the ticket. When Walter Mondale elected Geraldine Ferraro, he obviously did so with the hope that women would come out to support the first woman running on a major-party national ticket.    

It’s not exactly common, but if you were taking a hard look at the electoral map as you were picking your veep and saw a hugely popular politician in a key swing state in which you had no special standing yourself, you might just conclude that that was a good place to stop your search.    

Fourth is the question of succession. No, not in the general sense of whom you would want to lead the country if you didn’t make it to the end of your term, but in the sense of who would make a plausible presidential candidate once you are done running for office. This is actually a pretty ambitious criterion to adopt, requiring as it does a view of the White House beyond your own time there and before you have even been elected. But in party-building terms, it’s a huge opportunity.    

Mr. Clinton’s selection of Mr. Gore clearly focused on this aspect of the problem. Mr. Gore, like Mr. Clinton, was a centrist Democrat from the same region and from the same generation. Balance this was not. True, the Clinton campaign was looking for a way to “pick” the supposed GOP electoral lock, as strategist James Carville said afterward, and that would entail winning Southern states. Mr. Gore helped there. But from the beginning, Mr. Clinton made it clear that he viewed Mr. Gore as his preferred successor, and that he was presenting not only himself but a longer-term view of where the party should go — in distinction to the ideologically liberal wing headed by Sen. Edward Kennedy.    

It’s worth noting that the current office-holder, Dick Cheney, is an outlier in all respects. He didn’t unite the party in 2000, because it wasn’t divided; to the extent that he brought balance, it was “gravitas,” not regional or ideological; the outcome in his home state of Wyoming was not in doubt; and Mr. Cheney declared at the outset that he had no presidential ambitions, which he apparently meant.    

We will not see his like, I think. Next week, unity, balance, electoral benefit and succession in 2008.