The Washington Times

Some of the key considerations in selecting a vice presidential running mate, as followers of our summer seminar in this space know, are part unity, ticket balancing, electoral advantage and plausibility as an eventual successor to the Oval Office. Most all of those tapped for veep meet one or more of these criteria.     

Some are picked to ensure that all elements of the party are firmly behind the ticket; this is often relevant when the party is divided into distinct and contending factions, and the eventual winner reaches out to a prominent member of the losing faction. Balance is usually a matter of geography: A candidate from a northeastern state picks a southerner, someone from the West picks someone from the East. The pursuit of short-term electoral advantage may mean selecting a popular figure from a key swing state or giving the nod to someone who presumably has special appeal for a distinct set of voters: a woman, a Catholic. And the consideration of succession is not so much the “heartbeat away from the presidency” issue as a matter of selecting someone who has a chance to build up the assets that may one day propel him or her to the top slot.     

So, what’s the early line, you ask? No, please don’t take this speculation as a prediction. It’s just meant to clarify the issues as things now stand.    

Let’s start with Democrats and the basic question: Is Hillary Clinton going to be the nominee or not? The Democratic Party is divided, and the most vocal elements these days are the forces that propelled Ned Lamont to his primary victory in Connecticut over Joe Lieberman: anti-war, anti-establishment, anti-Washington, in the sense not only of opposition to Republican domination, of course, but also of what they perceive as a far too timid or accommodationist Democratic stance.     

Now, it is abundantly clear, and indeed has been so since Howard Dean’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2003-04, that the effect of this wing of the party on prominent mainstream Democrats is high and rising. Many if not most Democrats are adjusting both their rhetoric and their behavior in an effort to tap into (or at any rate appease) the activist wing and its “netroots.”     

Mrs. Clinton, the most prominent contender in the race and the leader in all polls so far, is quite simply not the candidate of this wing of her party. Moreover, she knows that. So what does that mean for her campaign? If she’s smart, and she is, it means that she knows that now is no time to undergo a political conversion into some fire-breathing left-winger in an attempt to win over the activist left.     

One of Mrs. Clinton’s ongoing political problems is a reputation for opportunism. Many Democrats think that’s what led her to her affect of centrism in the first place. But for better or worse, in the context of the Democratic Party, “centrist” is what she is. There’s no going back, even though she will surely do as little as possible to further antagonize the party base.     

So she is likely going to have to win the nomination without the “netroots.” And if she does, then will come the precise moment to reach out to them: in a classic party-unity move with her vice presidential selection. The activist base will want someone it regards with high credibility on the ticket. Moreover, the succession issue will also be on the people’s minds: A key test of the veep nominee will be credibility going forward.     

Now, there is one notable oddity in the Democratic Party this year, and that’s how few of the most prominent candidates for the nomination are viable as veep picks. Al Gore, vying with John Edwards at present as top choice of the activist wing, has already been vice president, and although he was good at it, he won’t want the job again. John Kerry has already run for president, so the chance he’d run on the second slot is nil (nor would anyone, for the same reason, ask him).     

John Edwards has already run for vice president. But if he runs a smart campaign with appeal to the activist wing but loses the nomination to Mrs. Clinton, I think he would be smart enough to angle for the offer again. Come what may, his way forward from there would be clear.     

And if it’s not Mrs. Clinton? It seems likely that the most plausible alternative to her is the candidate who most effectively taps into party activist sentiment. But if that person prevails, the likelihood of outreach to the center for the veep is not necessarily high. Mrs. Clinton, in other words, would likely not be the choice. On the other hand, if Sen. Evan Bayh keeps burning his centrist bridges, he might be an interesting choice for bringing Indiana into play. And that’s true whether it’s Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Gore, or Mr. Edwards giving the nod. Wild card: Sen. Barack Obama. Everybody loves him: unity in diversity. Likely, he’d rather wait. He may not get the chance.     

Next week: Seminar concludes with the GOP.