The Washington Times

There are two kinds of presidential candidates: those who actually aspire to the nation’s highest office and those who are running to elevate their profile or push an ideological agenda. As examples of the latter on the Republican side, we have televangelist Pat Robertson in 1988 and America-first conservative commentator Pat Buchanan in 1992 (when he demonstrated incumbent president George H.W. Bush’s vulnerability with a surprisingly strong showing in New Hampshire before fading). On the Democratic side, for example, there was civil rights activist Al Sharpton in 2004.     

Mr. Robertson clearly had in mind increasing the clout of Christian conservatives within the Republican Party. Mr. Buchanan wanted to press for a reversal of direction on trade and immigration as well as to do battle with the left on social and cultural issues. Mr. Sharpton sought to refocus attention on race.     

As well, all sought to enhance their personal stature and to solidify their leadership claims within their respective constituencies. What I can’t tell you is the level of irony (or cynicism) with which each approached the endeavor: Were they running for president or, if you see what I mean, “running” for “president”? Among serious aspirants to the White House, there are once again two divisions: those who are running in hopes of the nomination that year and those who are running in hopes of the nomination farther down the road. I think it’s useful to think of the latter group as, in effect, running for vice president.     

Now, life is full of surprises. When Mr. Buchanan actually beat Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary in 1996, I think he thought that he just might have turned the corner from unserious candidate to serious contender. It seems pretty clear that Bill Clinton was running for vice president in 1992, or at any rate, at least at the outset, wasn’t really expecting to get his shot at the top of the ticket until 1996 at the earliest. But when heavy hitters Mario Cuomo and Dick Gephardt declined to enter the race, all of a sudden everything changed, and Mr. Clinton found himself riding the tiger. He was always good in that kind of crisis (if by “good” you mean effective at advancing his ambitions on the fly).     

The most spectacularly successful run for the vice presidency in recent years was that of John Edwards in 2004. It’s the gold standard: He parlayed a single general-election victory (for Senate from North Carolina in 1998) into a 2004 presidential primary run in which, thanks to a string of timely and surprising strong showings (though he won only the state of his birth, South Carolina), he emerged as the last man standing against John Kerry, who then picked him for the No. 2 slot.     

The thing about running for vice president is that there are three possible outcomes that are good and only one that’s bad (but still useful). One, you may get the nomination for vice president and your ticket may go on to win the general election, in which case you have eight years of nothing much else to do but, and certainly nothing more important to do than, to prepare your presidential run (whether the president you serve under wins or loses reelection is irrelevant; you are the top seed either way). To be sure, this scenario is exceedingly unlikely, but getting to be a presidential nominee is rare in its own right, entailing both skill and luck. A swing of 150,000 votes out of more than 5.5 million cast in Ohio, and that’s where Mr. Edwards would be today.     

Second, you can get the nomination for vice president and have your ticket lose in the fall. You will not be blamed personally for the defeat. You will have gained invaluable experience in waging a national campaign. Your name recognition nationally will have gone from zero to 60 in five months. Donors and local political machine operators will be keen to talk business with you. That’s where Mr. Edwards is now. Again, life is full of surprises, such as the ferocious ambition of an ex-first-lady-turned-senator. But imagine where Mr. Edwards would be were Hillary Clinton not on the scene.     

Third, you may not get the nomination for vice president after all. But if you have done at all well in the primaries, you will almost certainly get mentioned as a serious contender for the veep slot. That’s very good for you. Your campaign has established your national credibility. This gives you a big edge on fund raising and organization over what you likely faced when you started running for vice president. And again, the campaign experience going forward is a huge plus. There is nothing whatsoever unusual in American politics about having to run twice for your party’s nomination before you get it.    

The one bad outcome is that you’re a loser, baby: a lousy campaigner nobody wants to vote for. In that case, better to know than not to know. Besides, CNN or Fox will still love you.     

Next week: early bird 2008 veep scenarios.