Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Winning the Veepstakes: Exploring the Criteria of Running Mate Selection

Below is an essay I published in the Summer/Fall 2008 edition of Northeast Ohio Municipal Leader Magazine. Although almost four years old, it is still very relevant today.

Winning the Veepstakes: Exploring the Criteria of Running Mate Selection

“Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between that madman and the White House?”

--Ohio Senator Mark Hanna imploring his Republican colleagues not to place New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt on the ticket as President William McKinley’s running mate in 1900.
The Importance of the Running Mate Choice

The selection of a running mate is perhaps the biggest decision a presidential candidate will make during their candidacy. Though most pundits are obsessed with the decision from a purely horse-race driven perspective, it is a decision that could have monumental consequences given the fact that eight of the 42 individuals who have served in that office died—four by assassination and four due to natural causes. Add in the fact that one president, Richard Nixon, resigned before his second term was complete, and the historical track record shows that slightly over one in five U.S. presidents did not complete the term they were elected to. This doesn’t even reflect those presidents such as Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower that were incapacitated during their term.

Such statistics would not be cause for alarm if party nominees chose their running mates based on qualification alone. However, they don’t and rarely have. Instead, the intricacies of the Electoral College and two party system dictate that strategic candidates consider other factors beyond mere qualification. Beyond that, many running mates have been picked with little care or vetting. This is the case even in the modern presidency leading to some deficient running mates, and worse yet, vice presidents.

For example, in 1968 and again in 1972, Richard Nixon tapped Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate. A moderate from a Democratic-leaning border state, Agnew had a meteoric rise to the vice presidency having made the jump from Baltimore County Executive to Governor in 1966. His turbulent tenure as vice president ended abruptly when he resigned in October 1973 as part of a plea agreement to avoid federal prison time for money laundering and tax evasion during his time as governor.

In 1972, South Dakota Senator George McGovern picked first-term Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton, someone who shared his opposition to the Vietnam War, as his running mate. Even a shoddy background check would have quickly revealed what the newspapers uncovered almost immediately—that Eagleton had undergone electroconvulsive therapy in the early 1960s for mental illness. Eagleton’s stay on the Democratic ticket was short—he was replaced after 18 days by Sargent Shriver, brother-in-law to President John Kennedy and first-director of the Peace Corps.

In 1988 and with little consultation, Vice President George H.W. Bush shocked the political world by picking Indiana Senator Dan Quayle as his running mate. Never known as an intellectual-heavyweight, the fresh-faced conservative was just two years into his second term when he was tapped by Bush. Many political observers expressed shock that someone with so little political experience would be picked to be one heartbeat away from the presidency, despite the fact that Quayle protested he had as much Congressional experience as John Kennedy when he ran for president. Quayle’s tenure as vice president was a rocky one and provided ample fodder for late night comics. When images of President George H.W. Bush momentarily collapsing from intestinal flu at a 1992 state dinner in Japan aired in the United States, most Americans realized that an unqualified vice president, even one who can’t spell potato, wasn’t a laughing matter.

Criteria Considered

Many factors come into play other than sheer competence when a running mate is chosen. This has always been the case throughout American history—from Elbridge Gerry to Joe Lieberman. It may be even truer in the modern era.

Perhaps the most obvious factor that a presidential campaign considers is geography. The electoral math dictates that running mates should be able to carry (or at least make competitive) an important swing state for the ticket or at least solidify a region in the party’s base. Nearly all modern running mates have fulfilled this criterion and many pre-modern running mates have as well.

Senator John Kennedy’s selection of Lyndon Johnson, the Senate Majority Leader, was based on the calculus that Kennedy needed to carry Texas. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts, carried LBJ’s home state—barely—just 46,000 votes separated Kennedy and Nixon, the Republican nominee. Former California Governor Ronald Reagan’s selection of primary rival George H.W. Bush in 1980 was based in part on geography. As the son of a U.S. Senator from Connecticut, Bush moved his family to West Texas following World War II to enter the booming oil business. Bush helped broaden Reagan’s appeal beyond the West to the Northeast, South, and beyond. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton’s selection of fellow Southerner Al Gore was an unconventional yet successful attempt to break the GOP’s lock on the South. The Senator helped Clinton win a number of border states including Gore’s home state of Tennessee, the first time a Democrat had won there since 1976. Most recently in 2000, Al Gore’s selection of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman was an attempt to carry the battleground state of Florida. Lieberman, who is Jewish, appealed to the many transplanted Jews from the Northeast residing in the Sunshine State.

In order to make the ticket more palatable to a broad spectrum of the country, another important running mate criterion is that of ideological counterbalancing. If a presidential candidate is a staunch liberal or conservative, a moderate is often chosen to counterbalance their “extremeness.” Conversely, if the party nominee is perceived as a moderate, a running mate who better represents the party’s base might be in order.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter, the conservative former governor of Georgia, chose liberal Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale as a way to appeal to progressive Midwestern and Northeastern Democrats. Reagan’s selection of moderate George H.W. Bush helped Reagan broaden his appeal beyond Goldwater Republicans. Bush’s ill-fated choice of Dan Quayle was a nod to the conservative base which never trusted the elder Bush. Finally, Gore’s selection of Lieberman, a conservative Democrat willing to criticize President Clinton’s conduct during the Monica Lewinski scandal, appealed to mainstream voters uneasy about Clinton’s transgressions and Gore’s environmental activism.

Though geography and ideology are important factors, a prospective candidate’s resume is also important, despite examples in American history where the resume has been discounted. As a former member of Congress, Ambassador to China and the United Nations, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, George H.W. Bush was very qualified to be president in his own right. The eight year apprenticeship he served as Reagan’s Vice President only strengthened his strong resume. Many other running mates in the modern era from Kansas Senator Bob Dole (Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976) to Joe Lieberman had enough experience in national public office that they could have indeed assumed the duties of president should that have been necessary.

Occasionally, for various reasons, the presidential candidate will need to choose someone that not only meets some or all of the criteria previously discussed, but also is viewed by the American public as having presidential credentials beyond reproach—in other words, an individual who is viewed as a viable presidential candidate in their own right, even if they have chosen not to run themselves. Such an individual is said to possess gravitas—a murky concept connoting a mythical combination of wisdom, experience, and intelligence that would allow the individual to flourish in the presidential role if called upon.

Many pundits spoke of General Colin Powell in this manner, particularly as Republicans increasingly called upon George Bush to dump Dan Quayle from the ticket in 1992 as his campaign fortunes sagged. In 1988, Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis’ running mate, Lloyd Bentsen, was similarly viewed in this light. This perhaps explains why one Democratic elector chose to cast his vote for the Texas Senator instead of Dukakis. Finally, what else can explain Texas Governor George W. Bush’s selection of fellow Texan Richard Cheney in 2000? The selection of Cheney had nothing to do with geography since both men were from Texas (though Cheney later registered to vote in his native state of Wyoming). Nor did ideology factor in since both Bush and Cheney had genuine conservative credentials. Rather, the selection of Cheney was an attempt to calm the fears of those who thought Bush’s qualifications, both in terms of previous political experience and intelligence, did not rise to the presidential level. As a former chief of staff to President Ford, a member of the House of Representatives from 1979 to 1989, and as Secretary of Defense for President George H.W. Bush, Cheney had a resume fit for a president and the respect of most of the political establishment. Despite his controversial tenure as vice president, no one can dispute that he had, and has, gravitas.

The 2008 Veepstakes

As of this writing, neither party nominee in the 2008 election has yet chosen a running mate. However, given the obvious challenges of a post-9/11 world and sinking economy, and given some glaring shortcomings of each party’s nominee, this year’s selection of vice presidential running mates is of crucial importance, not only to the horse race aspects of the campaign but the public policy aspects of governing.

Arizona Senator John McCain will have to contend with the fact that at age 72, he would be the oldest U.S. president ever elected to a first term. Ronald Reagan, elected at 69 and sworn-in at 70, was previously the most aged president. Reagan suffered memory lapses throughout his presidency and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease five years after he left office which will serve as a stark reminder that presidential illness and disability are always a possibility, particular for a septuagenarian president. Beyond the challenge of advanced age, McCain is also distrusted by the conservative base of his own Republican Party. This distrust is the result of his embracing the maverick role in the U.S. Congress for decades and earning a reputation for bucking his own party, even when politically inexpedient to do so.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama, the presumed nominee for the Democratic Party, has the opposite problem. At age 47 and just three years removed from being a state senator in Springfield, it is relatively easy to portray Obama as too inexperienced for the job. Also, with one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate, opponents can paint Obama as out of touch with mainstream America.

The challenge for both candidates will be to select individuals that simultaneously boost their chances of winning the election but are also viewed as presidential in their own right. As career legislators, both men lack executive experience so helpful in the White House, thus a running mate with executive experience is logical and perhaps essential. McCain, often viewed as a moderate will likely want to bolster his credentials among the GOP base, perhaps by selecting a conservative Southern governor. Obama will need to increase his allure among moderate and independent voters, particularly since McCain has a built-in advantage there. Perhaps a moderate governor from a battleground state would help Obama broaden his appeal.

Given the fact that a number of presidents have not survived their term, and several have been unable to perform their duties at some point during their presidency, a running mate should be chosen based on qualification first. In a post-9/11 world, the office of vice president is too important to select an individual solely based on electoral or political expediency.

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