We are now only days away from the announcements by the
major party presidential nominees of their choices of vice
presidential running mates.
We pundits usually go overboard in anticipation of these
announcements with over-the-top speculation that puts our
commentary usually, in the end, under water.
We always need to recall, however, some simple political
truisms about this ritual moment in the presidential
First, the vice presidential choice very rarely makes a
difference in the election. Most voters are understandably
preoccupied with the office of president, and who they will
have to listen to, and look at, from the “bully pulpit” every
day for the next four years. The stereotypical exception was
John Kennedy’s choice of Lyndon Johnson who brought the
ticket the key electoral votes of Texas in 1960.
The office of vice president is legally a necessary footnote in
the U.S. constitution, and for most of U.S. history has been
merely and primarily waiting for an unplanned vacancy in
the Oval Office. In that sense, the office can be quite
important, as history has shown. It was fortunate that
Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman were vice presidents
when tragedy struck, but not so fortunate when Andrew
Johnson, John Tyler and Chester Alan Arthur were required
to take over from fallen presidents.
The work of the vice president is almost entirely ceremonial
unless the president specifically assigns him or her increased
duties. This is only a recent development in the institution of
the executive branch. Jimmy Carter gave Walter Mondale a
greater role, as did George W. Bush with Dick Cheney. Carter
and Bush had little Washington, DC experience, and it made
sense to employ Mondale and Cheney (each who did) in a
Every cycle, of course, has its own characteristics, as does
each presidential nominee. In 2016, there is a singular contrast
between the nominees and their vice presidential needs.
Hillary Clinton is the consummate Washington insider, having
been first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state. Like her
presumptive Republican opponent, she provokes strong
positive and negative feelings among voters, but Mrs. Clinton,
unlike her opponent, will likely consider demographics and
“balance” in her choice of running mate. She almost certainly
is doing extensive polling on this matter. Conventional
speculation is mostly about her need to placate the left wing
of her party, the Bernie Sanders wing. This might suggest
Senator Elizabeth Warren as her choice, but having two
controversial women on one ticket would be an enormous
risk. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota would be a
savvier choice if the strategy is for an all-woman ticket, but
the Minnesota senator has little appeal to the left. Mrs.
Clinton also has a contrasting need to appeal to the political
center, and Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia might be a wise
choice if this were the strategy. An Hispanic-American
running mate has also been suggested for Mrs. Clinton.
A surprise is quite possible.
Donald Trump does not really need a demographically
balanced ticket. In November, voters will either be for him or
against him. What Mr. Trump needs, and he has said this is
what he wants, is an experienced Washington figure who will
be invaluable to him should he win the presidency, and who
would be reassuring to many voters now on the electoral
fence. Two governors with congressional experience, Mike
Pence of Indiana and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma have recently
been mentioned, as has Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey.
But perhaps the most substantive choice would be former
Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who has the most
experience and the knowledge of domestic, military and
international affairs to be instantly credible and invaluable
as a running mate, and as a vice president. Mr. Gingrich,
on the other hand (and like Mr. Christie) has a powerful
political personality, and Mr. Trump might worry about
being upstaged. Both of these men have quite strongly
supported Mr. Trump (although Mr. Christie ran against him
for the nomination). Donald Trump, in the end, is going to
make up his own mind; no one is going to tell him what’s
best for him (other than perhaps his innermost circle of
advisers that includes his family). Mr. Trump’s choice,
however, will tell us much about what kind of administration
he would lead if elected.
(In full disclosure, I have known personally both Senator
Klobuchar and Speaker Gingrich for many years.]
As is always the case, the most important consideration about
presidential nominees’ choices for vice president is whether
or not they are ready to be president on a moment’s notice.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.