Now that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have effectively secured their respective party’s presidential nominations, attention has turned to whom they might select as vice presidential running mates. This is an important decision in that eight times in American history a president has died in office elevating the vice president to the presidency. Another six times a vice president ran for and was elected president.
The U.S. Constitution proscribes few official duties to the vice president, with being president of the U.S. Senate – and thus able to cast tie-breaking votes – the most important. The impact of vice presidents has varied greatly. John Nance Gardner, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s vice presidents, famously said the office was "not worth a bucket of warm . . . ," well he made his point. Conversely, Vice President Dick Cheney was a political heavyweight in the administration of George W. Bush. In short, the office is what the president and vice president make of it.
Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, so there has to be something about which to speculate. Over the next four weeks that speculation will focus on the selection of vice presidential running mates. As their first major decision, who the nominees pick will say a lot about how they intend to run their prospective administrations. The choice, of course, also depends on the immediate political situation.
For example, as one who has never held elective office Donald Trump might want to pick someone with government experience. His statements to date tend to point in that direction. As a result, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Ohio Governor John Kasich make the list. However, Trump is possessed of an out-sized personality and might want to pick a bland running mate who will fade into the background, placing U.S. Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Sessions of Alabama on the list.
If Trump believes it necessary for his vice presidential pick to help him politically, he could follow the example of Ronald Reagan, who picked primary opponent George H.W. Bush to help him unify the party. Senators Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio would fit that bill. With Democrats running a woman at the top of the ticket Mr. Trump could seek to add diversity by picking a prominent GOP woman. That is why former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appears on many lists. Sarah Palin, who was tapped by John McCain as his running mate in 2008, also figures prominently in speculation. Palin would also help solidify the party’s conservative base, as would former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has fewer options. Republicans have decimated Democrats at the congressional and state levels over the past eight years yielding a shallow bench from which to select national candidates. Here again, the first question Mrs. Clinton must answer is will her pick be a governing partner, or one who shores up her political standing.
The Democratic presidential primary proved to be more hotly contested and divisive than expected at the outset. Senator Bernie Sanders tapped into a large vein of discontent within the party and Secretary Clinton’s first goal must be party unity. Her recent meeting with ultra-liberal Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren resulted in rampant speculation there could be an all-female Democratic ticket.
Or, Democrats may wish to try and cement their standing in the rapidly growing Hispanic community. Julian Castro, the former Mayor of San Antonio and current U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is a rising star within the party and would fit the bill. She too could go the route of choosing a governing partner, perhaps tapping former rival Martin O’Mally, or Virginia Senator Mark Warner.
Warner would have the added benefit of bringing a strong base of support in a battleground state, which is another route either candidate could go in making their selection. There was a time when the vice presidential candidate was expected to help win a key state, one of the reasons why John F. Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson of Texas in 1960. That has been less the case in recent years.
In fact vice presidential candidates rarely make a significant impact on the outcome of a presidential election. The single most important factor is that the pick does no harm. The Thomas Eagleton disaster in 1972 and the disruption caused when George H.W. Bush selected Dan Quayle in 1988 come to mind. As Trump and Clinton make their decisions, that factor must weigh heavily.
All these questions will be answered next month, until then, the guessing game will continue.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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