“The Vice President can't help you. He can only hurt you."
--Richard Nixon, 1968
With the Republican nomination race over (well almost), the next favorite activity of political punditry is already underway – picking the vice-presidential candidate. In last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Pat Toomey listed ideal running mates for Sen. John McCain to consider. Reflecting his priorities as the president of Club For Growth, all of the possibilities were, in his words, “true-blue fiscal conservatives,” such as South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. On RealClearPolitics.com, Tom Bevan’s quickie straw poll resulted in 70 names, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice topping the list, followed by former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. “Dream tickets” and “history-making” picks aside, serious observers are correct in commenting the selection of a running mate is one of the first genuinely presidential decisions a candidate will make. Unfortunately, for a major part of American history, the vice-presidential slot has been filled according to sometimes expedient calculations embodied in Nixon’s infamous quote above – the vice-presidential candidate has been selected because of the political advantages brought to the ticket in terms of geography, ideology, and, of late, gender or race. In 2000, Dick Cheney, a conservative by way of Wyoming, offered little in the way of these advantages; however, the influence he has exercised since taking office has been unprecedented. More importantly, his contributions, however controversial, have highlighted the importance of choosing a capable vice-president. Whatever your opinion of Vice President Cheney is, one must concede he has established a new standard for the qualifications and readiness of individuals nominated for the post. As the campaign proceeds, the usual (and inevitable) electoral factors must be secondary to evaluating a running mate’s qualifications and likely role in a future administration.
In the days before the United States stepped onto the world stage, the emphasis on political calculations may have been harmless, but the subsequent record of vice-presidential ascensions should have induced some caution. The first vice-president to assume office, John Tyler in 1841, was merely brought on the ticket to provide an alliterative touch to the presidential campaign slogan but ended up advancing the sectional crisis; he even ended up serving in the rebel Confederate government. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, could not rein in the Radical Republican Congress and ended up impeached. President Chester A. Arthur, president after Garfield’s assassination, was forgettable. In contrast, Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency after William McKinley’s assassination and earned a place on Mount Rushmore. Similarly, Harry Truman seemed an unlikely heir to FDR but eventually won re-election in 1948 in fighting style and has emerged an icon of presidential authenticity.
Fortunately, in modern presidential politics, the selection process has begun to increasingly incorporate the possibility this individual may have to assume the presidency. In one of the few praiseworthy decisions he made, Jimmy Carter rightfully recognized his “outsider” administration would benefit from the voice of a well-regarded veteran “insider.” Carter chose Sen. Mondale and then gave him an office in the West Wing, signally the office’s first significant elevation. Since then, thoughtful, and more importantly, successful, presidential candidates have selected running mates with commendable pedigrees.
Beginning in 1976, virtually every running mate have been esteemed political figures and were readily recognized as presidential material in their own right. The presidential candidate as well as the voting public could be confident in the running mate’s political qualities, executive capabilities, and continuity in the Administration’s policies. The most glaring exception is, of course, Bush 41’s choice, Sen. Dan Quayle, who never stood a chance. Quayle was emasculated the day the decision was announced. Amidst draft dodging allegations and missteps that permanently earned him the label of lightweight, Quayle was an ignored participant in a Bush Administration that guided American foreign policy during momentous times in Eastern Europe and Iraq. While Quayle was Bush 41’s saving grace with conservatives, Quayle was not a factor in the Administration or later presidential elections, unlike his predecessors or his successor, Al Gore.
Gore underscores the benefits of choice that defies the usual balancing criteria. A youngish Southern moderate, Gore re-emphasized Clinton’s demonstration of youthful dynamism in contrast to the tired establishment Republicanism of Bush 41. Before Cheney, it was Gore who was repeatedly identified as the most powerful vice president in history. When Gore made his eventual run as the third term of the Clinton administration, he only faced one challenger, unlike Bush 41 who faced off against six rivals.
Whereas the Clinton-Gore ticket imparted synergy, the Bush-Cheney team conveyed depth. Before becoming Vice President, Cheney possessed an already impressive resume. He had been White House chief of staff, representative-at-large from Wyoming, the House minority whip, Secretary of Defense in the previous Bush during the Gulf War, and then CEO of Halliburton – just the right combination of executive, legislative, security, and private sector qualifications a presidential candidate could ever want in a running mate and potential successor. When it was announced, the selection was greeted with praise; when he was given an expansive role in the new administration, the arrangement was lauded as the cornerstone of an exceptionally gifted Administration.
However, after six arduous years of helping to shape a broad swath of domestic and foreign policies, the breadth of qualifications and influence Cheney has brought to the office are now depicted as a recipe for executive authority unbound. Cheney’s influence, while considerable, has been exaggerated and such critiques have arisen from shrill partisans easily baited by the defiant style with which Bush and Cheney have conducted policy. Cheney has indeed been the most powerful vice-president ever and, in this day age, why would anyone want the un-Cheney, an unqualified and unready individual assuming the presidency?
Yes, selecting an individual with a McCain administration’s “third term” in mind remains important. Bush 43’s selection of an individual who readily forswore a desire for the presidency has been a mixed blessing. The Republican Party, usually more orderly in crowning its frontrunner, had been without one this time around. In light of the Administration’s present political standing, this could be a positive – McCain has been a fervent support of Bush 43’s Iraq strategy, but he is still sufficiently independent of the Administration to win over Democrats and independents.
However, the Bush 41 experience reminds us we cannot be so cavalier. If the Administration is limited to one term and the vice president would be a viable candidate, then the individual could be (and perhaps should be) a formidable figure in his own right in order to lead the party four years later. In 1996, senior statesman Sen. Dole was an easy frontrunner over the unremarkable Quayle, but lackluster in the general election, and a golden opportunity to usher in a new generation of leaders was delayed and a vulnerable President Clinton went on to victory. The choice in 2008 must be made with this history in mind.
Given the fragility of the Reagan coalition this time around, the vice-presidential candidate should be someone with strong credentials in both the economic and social conservative wings of the party, preferably executive experience, and (unfortunately) born in the latter half of the Baby Boom. This author is just as eager as anyone else for Baby Boomers to step aside, but conservative ones are tolerable. At any rate, this individual may have to accept being transitional if rising stars such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (“A Very Brady Conservative”) lives up to expectations or (fingers-crossed) Jeb Bush returns to the stage.
On Toomey’s list, only Gov. Sanford stands out in this light. Gramm and Forbes would make great secretaries of the treasury; they were busts as presidential candidates. Bevan’s list offers a number of interesting possibilities – Watts, Palin, Sen. Tom Coburn, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, former Gov. Bill Owens, or former Rep. Steve Largent. As Bevan noted, the most intriguing are Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and SEC Chairman Chris Cox.