Sunday, June 24, 2012

Choosing a Running Mate

With the primaries over and the battle for the Republican presidential nomination apparently decided, political writers find themselves in an historically dreary period until the parties gather for their conventions.

It is at this time when there is much speculation about the ultimate identity of at least one of the major parties' running mates.

Of course, in 2012, we already know the name of one of the running mates. That would be Joe Biden, the incumbent vice president.

Four years ago, it was a much less common situation — in which no incumbent was running — so there was a great deal of speculation regarding the identities of both party nominees' running mates.

But this year, as I say, we already know who will be the running mate on the Democrats' ticket — unless, as a few folks have predicted, Barack Obama decides to drop Biden and put Hillary Clinton on his ticket.

I have argued repeatedly that this is highly unlikely. In their zeal to whip up a discussion about a non–issue, such observers show an appreciation only for drama, not history.

Realistically, only Republican Mitt Romney will be selecting a running mate in this election cycle.

Recent speculation about Romney's eventual running mate has focused, as usual, on the most well–known names — but history tells us that presidential nominees, in what is often described as their first presidential–level decision, are likely to surprise just about everyone — perhaps spectacularly so.

I believe the reason for that is, while it is always possible that a vice president could become president at any time, presidential nominees don't tend to treat the decision with the kind of reverence it deserves.

Don't get me wrong; it's an important decision, but the overriding consideration is usually political — which potential running mate can give the ticket the most bang for the buck on Election Day?

Thus, the decision offers a fascinating glimpse into the logic of the nominee, but, as a barometer for the kind of decisions he might be likely to make in office, it is virtually worthless.

Like four years ago.

There was a lot of speculation about the running mates Obama and John McCain would choose, but, in the end, the selections of Biden and Sarah Palin were complete surprises — and seemingly motivated by entirely different considerations (even though both choices came down to politics — as usual — no matter how the campaigns chose to spin the decisions).

They addressed weaknesses — either real or perceived — of the presidential nominees.

Domestically, in 2008, there had been concerns about gas and food prices, but there were also international tensions that summer, and foreign policy was an area in which McCain, a Vietnam–era prisoner of war, was believed to have an advantage.

As a presidential candidate, Biden hadn't attracted much support, and he came from a tiny state that was already believed to be in the bag for the Democrats, but he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and, as such, he brought foreign policy credibility to the Democratic ticket.

So, while conventional wisdom holds that a running mate is chosen in large part because of the votes he can bring or the states he can help the nominee carry, that didn't appear to play much of a role in Obama's decision. The selection of Biden was praised because it was believed to have addressed an administrative need, not an electoral one.

But it was political in the sense that it was designed to reassure voters who saw the war on terrorism and border security as the most crucial issues in 2008 (remember, when the Democrats convened in Denver, the economic collapse had not yet happened.)

McCain's apparent motivation in selecting a female running mate, on the other hand, was to appeal to the millions of women who had supported Hillary Clinton's campaign and were said to be lukewarm on Obama.

It was an electorally motivated decision, and it was seen for the transparent maneuver that it was. The Republicans entirely overlooked the fact that women who participated in the Democratic primaries had an ideological agenda, too. Palin was simply too extreme for most of them.

In fact, after the votes had been counted, I heard several people second–guessing McCain's choice. They argued — correctly — that there were centrist Republican women who could have had broader appeal to female voters.

(Most of those people, it is worth noting, had nothing but praise for Palin when she was chosen and during the campaign.)

But, on the other hand, Palin had to be extreme to keep the conservatives in line. There was already a widespread perception of McCain as a "RINO" (a "Republican in Name Only"), and he needed to give the conservatives a reason to show up at the polls.

Also — although it was hardly mentioned — Palin was the only candidate who, as a governor, brought executive experience to the table.

Traditionally, there are many factors involved in choosing a running mate, most aimed at providing some kind of balance to the ticket. Everyone has shortcomings, and the philosophy behind running mate selection has emphasized minimizing them.

As I said, Palin's executive experience carried some weight with voters who saw nothing but legislative experience from Obama, McCain and Biden.

In 2004, John Kerry apparently felt party unity was the most important factor so he chose North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to be his running mate.

Edwards had been Kerry's chief rival and the second–leading vote getter in the Democratic primaries — even though he won only two. It must have been a disappointment indeed for the Kerry team when their candidate received virtually no post–convention bounce in the polls. I'm sure they expected something, if only from the disgruntled Democrats whom they sought to appease.

Party unity never seemed to be a factor when George W. Bush made his choice in 2000. In fact, he appointed Dick Cheney to lead his vice–presidential search committee, but then Bush took the remarkable step of asking Cheney himself to be his running mate.

Had party unity been at the top of Bush's concerns, he probably would have picked McCain, his main rival for the nomination, to be his running mate.

Party unity apparently was behind Ronald Reagan's selection of George H.W. Bush in 1980.

Things got a little out of hand at that year's Republican convention. A rumor that former President Gerald Ford would be Reagan's running mate swept through the delegations like wildfire.

The idea was that Ford and Reagan, who had waged a bitter campaign for the GOP nomination four years earlier, would be co–presidents.

But negotiations broke down, and the dream ticket never came to fruition. In the end, Reagan picked Bush, who had been his chief rival for the nomination that year.

One of the longest–standing considerations in choosing a running mate has been geographical. The idea was to attract votes in states and/or regions that the presidential nominee might not otherwise get. I'm inclined to think that was more important in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but, with the rapid emergence of technology in the last 50 or 60 years, geographical factors have become less important.

Certainly Bill Clinton, in 1992, did not feel it was necessary to select someone who would provide geographical balance.

He chose Al Gore, a senator from Tennessee, one of the states that borders on Clinton's home state of Arkansas. Perhaps Clinton wanted to double down on his Southern credentials; most Southern states, after all, had only voted for Democrats once, perhaps twice, in the previous 30 years.

Also, with two Southerners on the ticket, the Bush campaign could not portray either candidate as a Northern liberal like previous Democratic candidates (i.e., George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis), and Gore's military service negated criticism Clinton had received on that during the primaries.

In his memoir "My Life," Clinton said of Gore, "I liked him and was convinced that he ... would be a big addition to our campaign."

Sometimes personal chemistry trumps everything else.

Presidential nominees choose their running mates for reasons that probably wouldn't occur to most people.

In 1968, Richard Nixon reportedly was so impressed with Spiro Agnew's speech placing his name in nomination that he offered him the second spot on the ticket.

Agnew was virtually unknown outside his home state of Maryland, but Nixon believed Maryland could be his beachhead in the South.

Nixon didn't carry Maryland in 1968, but he did carry five Southern states as he introduced the Southern strategy to modern American politics.

And, in 1964, Barry Goldwater picked New York Rep. Bill Miller to be his running mate because Miller was known to be the congressman who annoyed Goldwater's opponent, President Lyndon Johnson, the most.

There will be a lot of talk in the next two months about who will run with Romney in the fall, and the names you're likely to hear the most are the rising stars in Republican circles — Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie and others.

But don't be surprised if, when the smoke clears, someone you never heard of is standing on that podium with Romney in late August.

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