Despite the US vice president having the dubious, if undeserved bad rap as the most useless position in US politics, the choice of vice presidential running mate is one of the clearest signposts of what kind of president a candidate, Republican or Democrat, may be. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
Let’s assume Romney stays on a roll towards the Republican Party nomination after victories in the still-upcoming South Carolina, Florida, Nevada and Maine primaries. It won’t give him an actual majority needed for the nomination, but it will be a powerful message to other Republicans to get behind one candidate before they do enough damage to each other to leave nothing left for the Democrats in the general election.
Ending up with Romney sooner rather than later would stop the astonishing bloodletting that has had conservatives like Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum accuse Romney of being an immoral vulture capitalist whose crime has been to embrace with joyful enthusiasm Schumpeterian capitalism and its logic of creative destruction. This is increasingly likely even as social conservatives met over the weekend in Texas to try to bring the born again/evangelical/fundamentalist communities to coalesce around Rick Santorum as their anti-Romney candidate and avatar of family values as the core of a presidential campaign.
But in the real world that is less and less likely. So, if Romney does go into the convention in Tampa, Florida in late August as the de facto, all-but-anointed candidate, his thoughts will undoubtedly have turned to completing his ticket in who he would have as his running-mate and vice presidential candidate.
For a long time, the vice presidency was demeaned as the most insignificant political office in America. Constitutionally, the vice president’s job is to preside over the senate and be ready to step in if the incumbent president is impeached and convicted of “high crimes and misdemeanours”, dies or is otherwise unable to continue in office. In a letter to his wife, John Adams, while he was vice president, wrote, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived; and as I can do neither good nor evil, I must be borne away by others and meet the common fate.”
And Adams, after all, had helped draft the constitution and knew better than most what he had set himself up for when he became Washington’s vice president. However, vice presidents have taken over as president nine times (eight through death in office and one via impeachment) and five others were elected president eventually as well. And the vice president now routinely gets a real role in the presidency, for good or ill. Al Gore took on government efficiency and Dick Cheney took on al Qaeda, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Less artfully, but probably more pungently, John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president, described his office as “not worth a bucket of warm spit”. Well, actually he was earthier than that – but the newspapers of the time chose not to offend. George and Ira Gershwin shared parentage of the musical, Of Thee I Sing, in which a thoroughly insignificant vice president, Alexander Throttlebottom, is mocked; while in the film, Dave, Ben Kingsley portrays a truly decent man consigned to the vice presidency.
Traditionally, until the mid-1980s, a presidential nominee usually obeyed one of three models in picking a running mate. Firstly, he could select the person who was the runner-up in the nomination process, thereby uniting the party. A second alternative was to balance the ticket ideologically, within reason. If there was a social activist presidential nominee, then there should be a more cautious running mate, or vice versa. A third alternative was to balance the ticket on regional grounds or on age and experience. Eisenhower’s vast experience was paired with the more youthful Richard Nixon in 1952 and 1956. Vice versa when it came to the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in 1960 and the Kennedy-Johnson pairing brought together New England and the South as well.
But with the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro as Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, a new element, gender, was finally on the table, to be picked up next with the nomination of Sarah Palin in 2008, and the near-selection of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee. Two further barriers have been broken in recent years as well, race and religion. Joe Lieberman became the first Jewish candidate to run in 2000 with Al Gore, and, of course, Barack Obama broke the ultimate taboo in American politics by being the first other-than-white, and winning, candidate for a major party.
Mitt Romney faces a matrix of choices as he heads towards Tampa. Does he simply pick the next in line with delegate vote totals at the convention (say, Ron Paul), or does he make use of his choice to say something cogent and compelling about his own governing principles. And remember, plain vanilla-white Americans will no longer be an absolute majority in about three decades, say most demographic predictions.
And so, to help readers handicap this question, here is a rundown of some possible candidates, as well as a couple of wild cards, to watch.
The obvious choices are Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul. You can delete the last two as really long-odds candidates. Huntsman’s background is far too similar to Romney’s to be a rational choice, and Paul’s ideological and political perspectives could not be more different than Romney’s if they were in different parties.
Rick Perry has already shown he would be a distinct liability on the stump and in vice presidential candidate debates, while Newt Gingrich and Perry have unleashed such a barrage of personal attacks on Romney it is hard to see what voters would make of an unholy union with either of them. Of the current crop of alternative contenders, that would seem to leave Rick Santorum as a possible running mate. Santorum has a well-demonstrated common touch, but he has been sufficiently linked to the legislative earmarks/patronage/conveyor belt from congress to K Street influence peddler that his presence on the ticket might well be read as a repudiation of Romney’s own message of strict, no-nonsense business values. And in any case, Iowa may well prove to have been Santorum’s one lucky break.
So, who’s left? Somewhat surprisingly, the Republicans seem to have something of a weak bench of individuals who might be acceptable to the broad range of opinion in the party right now. The political journal, The New Republic recently tried to game the vice presidential sweepstakes for the Republicans with a list of 10 possible choices. TNR put Florida senator Marco Rubio, New Mexico governor Susanna Martinez, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Ohio senator Rob Portman, South Dakota senator John Thune, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, Nevada governor Brian Sandoval, and Indiana governor Mitch Daniel as possibles.
TNR’s line on these people, is that, generally speaking, they are either too new in their jobs to have developed an obvious patina of experience and judgment, or they look and sound so much like Mitt Romney they could, for all intents and purposes, be his twin – whites, from the business-friendly, moderate wing of their party. Three, Rubio, Martinez and Sandoval, are Hispanic Americans, but are new at their jobs and party greybeards are said to be wary of another disaster like Sarah Palin in bringing an attractive, but inexperienced figure under the relentless magnifying glass of national media and politics. Nikki Haley would also be a wild card as a (South) Indian-American and she was an early Romney supporter, but is also new at her job and, unfairly perhaps, had to deal with accusations of infidelity during her campaign for governor. So, from this group, three Hispanics, one South Asian, two women and a gaggle of white boys named whomever. Of the latter, Portman has had significant White House experience as Bush’s budget director and Chris Christie was almost drafted to run as the definitive anti-Romney, but none of this dozen minus two is the obvious big winner yet.
To this list, one might add congressmen Eric Cantor from Virginia and Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, and – wait for it – former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, even if she has never given a hint of interest. Kantor has been the pointman for the Republican Party’s budget disputes with Barack Obama and Ryan has been pro-active in propounding a Spartan, but long-term budget solution, regardless of which interest group oxen are gored. Meanwhile, while Jindal did himself no good with a particularly gormless Republican response to an Obama State of the Union speech a while back, he has been getting pretty good marks as a governor, although he has endorsed Rick Perry as a fellow governor from a neighbouring state.
And then there is Condoleezza Rice. Go ahead, tick the boxes on her – articulate, black, female, smart, experienced, she plays the piano, is a talented ice skater and knows the world, its problems and its leaders (something Romney can’t say so strongly about himself, given his own background). A couple of downsides exist too: she’s never run for office and was a leading co-architect of Bush’s wars.
What does this add up to? One thing it does say is the Republicans are not as deep in the kind of talent that speaks to the country as a whole, as opposed to a series of relatively inexperienced politicians who have powerful but divided, more limited constituencies. As a result, assuming Romney is the nominee, who he reaches out to as his running mate will be the first big demonstration of what kind of presidency he aims for, once he gets past that little matter of beating the incumbent.
And speaking of Barack Obama, in the past several weeks there has been yet another mini-boom in pushing Hillary Clinton as his running mate and appointing Joe Biden as secretary of state instead. That story first made the rounds a while back and the Obama administration dismissed it as sheer fantasy. Now, however, New York Times columnist and former editor-in-chief Bill Keller has brought the story back arguing in a column on 8 January that such a choice would present a tough ticket to defeat, would revitalise support for Obama from now-wavering constituencies and would allow the Obama administration to give vice president Joe Biden the job he has really wanted for decades anyway.
Even if Romney wraps up the nomination by 1 February, there’s still lots of fun left in this presidential election year. DM
Photo: Condoleezza Rice (Reuters)
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