Who Will Get the VP Nod?

A few weeks ago, we mused on whom each of the leading presidential candidates would most like to face in a general election. Since nothing pleases a political junkie more than wild speculation, it's time -- before the actual voting begins and candidates quickly begin to be knocked out of contention -- to make some guesses about what will a few months from now briefly consume the political press: the vice-presidential choices.

And in truth, it might be more timely than you think. Although candidates traditionally announce their VP choices just before the conventions, there is no law that says they must wait that long. If he or she chose, a candidate could name a running mate as soon as the nomination is effectively secured, which this year will probably be in early February. Or a candidate who wanted to do something really revolutionary could even name a running mate right now. Imagine the storm of news coverage that would follow, not to mention the immediate doubling of the ground that could be covered in Iowa and New Hampshire.

In fact, there is some precedent. TAPPED's own Tom Schaller wrote a piece in the Washington Post in 2003 advocating just such a move (it can be read here). Though none of the 2004 contenders took up the idea, two years later, Martin O'Malley picked a running mate during his primary campaign for Maryland governor, surprising everyone and garnering a wave of positive press, which helped push his opponent out of the race.

So it's an idea the candidates might consider. But whenever they make their picks, there are essentially two models to follow (in addition to picking someone from a key swing state, which is so twentieth century). There's the Cheney model, in which you select a running mate who shores up your weaknesses, or the Gore model, in which you find someone who reinforces your strengths. In 2000, Dick Cheney appeared to be everything George W. Bush wasn't: experienced, serious, knowledgeable and steady. In 1992, Al Gore appeared to be a virtual clone of Bill Clinton: young, Southern, ideologically moderate, and fresh. Both picks were extremely effective.

So let's take each leading candidate, and see who would be their Cheney, and who would be their Gore. We can stipulate that there are reasons why some of these pairings might not occur, like personal antipathy or an uncomfortable history. But these obstacles have been overcome before. Let's start with the Republicans.

Mitt Romney: Every presidential candidate needs to excite his base while reaching out to independents and members of the other party, but this year it will be a particular problem for Republicans. With a dispirited and shrinking party membership, a candidate like Romney, whose true appeal (pander though he might in the primaries) is non-ideological -- the can-do business leader promising a return of competence -- the need for a Cheney is strong. So Romney wants someone who is from his party's geographic base (the South) and appeals to the social conservatives who distrust the formerly moderate Massachusetts governor. There's one man who fits the bill: Mike Huckabee.

As for Romney's Gore, it's difficult to resist the idea of Texas governor Rick Perry. Pairing Romney with the man Molly Ivins dubbed "Governor Goodhair" would produce a dynamic duo of square jaws and corporate servitude that might not set the country on fire, but would certainly provide a Ken-doll symmetry. Even their wives look alike.

Advantage: Huckabee. The media love him, the party's crazies love him – sounds like a plan.

Mike Huckabee: The full extent to which Huckabee is a product of the religious right is fast becoming clear. If he were to capture the nomination, he'd need a Cheney to assure everyone -- independents, Democrats, and the Republican money class -- that his administration wouldn't be spending all its time staking out rest rooms in the West Wing to see if there's any suspicious toe-tapping going on. So his Cheney would be less socially conservative, from outside the South, and preferably a Washington insider. He could do a lot worse than John McCain. McCain might not like playing second banana, but it would be his last chance to have a shot at the Oval Office, should something unfortunate happen to President Huckabee.

If Huckabee wanted to go the Gore route, he'd have plenty of people to choose from, but he might select the man whose departure from the race opened up the religious right vote: Sam Brownback. Like Huckabee, Brownback is relatively young, and an advocate of a (ahem) compassionate conservatism grown from fervent religious faith. They could promise to deliver what George W. Bush couldn't: a conservatism shorn of its rough edges. And if you believe that…

Advantage: McCain.

John McCain: McCain is known for his advocacy of campaign finance reform, and the distrust with which he is viewed by the GOP's Southern base. So if he wanted a Cheney, he might go with Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. With a drawl as thick as molasses, Barbour provides assurance to Southerners simply by opening his mouth. And as a corporate whore of the first order (Barbour spent years as a lobbyist working for the tobacco companies, among others), he'd certainly warm the hearts of the party's financial backers.

If McCain wanted a Gore, he'd really only have one choice: Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Like McCain, Hagel is a Vietnam veteran beloved by the press who has carefully cultivated a reputation as a "maverick." The only problem is that Hagel is disliked within GOP ranks almost as much as McCain.

Advantage: Barbour. In order to get the brass ring, McCain would be more than willing to sell his soul one more time by bringing on someone like Barbour.

Rudy Giuliani: Though his campaign seems to have begun its death spiral, it is still possible that Giuliani could become the Republican nominee. If he did, he'd have to keep the base from staying home to have a chance of winning. And he could also use someone who could bring a little warm fuzzy to a candidacy unavoidably built on the personality of someone who is, to put is simply, a jerk (as Ed Koch likes to say, Rudy isn't a racist, "He's nasty to everybody.") The choice, then, seems to point in the same direction as Romney's: the likeable conservative, Mike Huckabee.

But if Giuliani wants to double down on the belligerence and find his Gore, he could pick someone prone to fits of rage who never met a bombing campaign he couldn't support: John McCain. They may not agree on torture (McCain found it unpleasant, while Giuliani can't wait to try it on somebody, anybody), but it'll be water under the bridge once we get a couple more wars going.

Advantage: Huckabee. They need someone around to calm Rudy down.

And now, on to the Democrats:

Hillary Clinton: So much about Clinton's candidacy is big and dramatic: the landmark possibility of our first woman president, the endless fascination with her husband, the fury she inspires on the right. So for Clinton, a Cheney is someone muted, inoffensive, barely noticeable at all. There are two current Clinton supporters who fit this bill: former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, and Indiana senator Evan Bayh. The last thing she needs is more drama from her running mate; either one of these men would be most likely to inspire reactions like, "Who is that guy again?" If she wins the Iowa caucus, give the edge to Vilsack.

But if she wanted a Gore, particularly given the possibility of bringing millions of previously non-voting women to the polls, Hillary could pick Arizona governor Janet Napolitano. The two women have a lot in common: both were re-elected in landslides in 2006, both are Methodists, both have a reputation for competence and political skill, and both were early achievers (according to her Wikipedia page, Napolitano's high school class named her Most Likely to Succeed). But there's no question that picking a female running mate would be something of a risk, and Clinton isn't exactly a risk-taker.

Advantage: Vilsack. His thirst for the job is almost embarrassing, and that suggests he'll do whatever he's told, a good quality for a VP to have.

Barack Obama: The knock on Obama is that for all his charisma and thoughtfulness, he doesn't have enough governing experience. So Obama's Cheney would be someone with a long resume. He could go with Bill Richardson (who seems to be running to be Clinton's running mate), but let me offer another suggestion: Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell. A former district attorney and Philadelphia mayor, Rendell has nuts-and-bolts experience coming out of his ears. And the two would make an intriguing contrast: where Obama is cool, Rendell is hot, where Obama is reserved, Rendell is gregarious. The guy once ran an ad featuring himself swimming in a city pool, full carpet of back hair in plain view. He might appear on the trail with pieces of cheesesteak stuck to his tie, but Rendell is about as enthusiastic a campaigner as you'll find. (When I lived in Philly and Rendell was mayor, I saw him appear at the opening of a garbage can, literally. They got new recycling containers at 30th St. Station, and Rendell was there to commemorate the occasion.)

The choice for Obama's Gore is clear: former Virginia governor Mark Warner. Like Obama, Warner is young, future-oriented, and has succeeded in winning support across party lines. The only problem is that Warner is running for Senate. But if Obama moves quickly, he can get Warner to fold up his current campaign and join the Obama ticket.

Advantage: Warner. Crank out the "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)."

John Edwards: Edwards has a problem similar to Obama's: many people consider his résumé too light, and worry that he might not have the proper gravitas for the position, particularly in foreign affairs. So what Edwards needs in a Cheney is someone to fill those gaps, and few would be better than Delaware senator Joe Biden. Biden has been in the Senate for 35 years, and is acknowledged to have as deep an understanding of foreign relations as just about anyone in Washington. Without knowing much about Biden's personal feelings, judging by the debates he seems to regard Edwards with a kind of condescending contempt. Of course, Biden seems to regard most people that way, including the voters. So he could be open to persuasion.

If Edwards wants a Gore, he might consider two Ohioans, Governor Ted Strickland and Senator Sherrod Brown. Like Edwards, Brown is a proud populist and someone who is not exactly part of the DC inner circle despite his time there. Like Edwards, Strickland has blue-collar roots (his father was a steelworker) and was the first in his family to go to college. And they'd both bring in Ohio, perhaps the most important of the swing states.

Advantage: Strickland. He's an ordained minister, which would drive the Republicans insane.

These suggestions hardly exhaust the possibilities, of course. But it's never too early to start the quadrennial parlor game of VP-picking. So let the speculation begin.

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