Picking the wrong running mate could ruin the campaigns of Clinton and Trumpby Sam Tanenhaus / May 19, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Read more: Hillary Clinton – one-term wonder?
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, their nominations almost sealed, are now weighing the selection of a vice-presidential candidate. Names are already circulating, although it’s too early to separate the true contenders from the decoys. Clinton has delighted feminists by hinting she’s open to a two-woman ticket, even if the three women mentioned most often—Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts—all come from states Clinton needs no local help to win, while a fourth prospect, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who happens to be a man, could deliver crucial votes in a “battleground” state.
Trump’s calculations are more arcane. He has never held elected office; a policy-steeped big name would help, but “establishment” Republicans, including his defeated rivals, are emphatically uninterested. “Hahahahahahahahaha,” an aide to Jeb Bush emailed the New York Times when asked if Bush might consider a place on Trump’s undercard. Two other seasoned Republicans, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, are available, but both are damaged goods and self-infatuated blusterers. And the ticket has one of those already.
All this brings home yet another oddity of the democratic process in the United States. While the quadrennial search for the president amounts to a public ritual lasting more than a year—to date almost 47m votes have been cast—vice presidents, who sit only a “heartbeat away” from the top office, are handpicked in secret. Serious contenders undergo a dehumanising ordeal, part speed-dating interview with the nominee, part FBI-style background check, involving tax returns, medical records and marital dossiers.
This gruelling initiation is necessary. There’s no such thing as the perfect “Veep,” but the annals echo with ghastly errors. In 1972, George McGovern chose Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton, who concealed a history of depression and sessions of electroshock therapy. Local politicians and journalists knew about it, though, and the facts spilled out. Eagleton withdrew, and McGovern was finished. More recently, John McCain tried to revive his 2008 campaign with a gamble on Sarah Palin, the telegenic new governor of Alaska. A kind of pre-Trump—populist, demagogic, scatterbrain—she thrilled the Republican base, but sent frightened moderates into the embrace of Barack Obama and his deftly chosen ticket-balancer, Joe Biden, snowy-haired friend of the white working class.
“A misstep when making their first pre-presidential decision could be ruinous. But there is hope of an original, surprising choice”
Matchmaking is never easy, but the risks have multiplied, thanks to social media—its trolls hiding under bridges and flesh-starved buzzards circling overhead. Clinton and Trump can’t be too careful as they inch along a high wire of public loathing. FiveThirtyEight, the data-mining website, reported in early May that both are now “more strongly disliked than any nominee at this point in the past 10 presidential cycles.” A misstep in making this first and most important pre-presidential decision could be ruinous. But there is also hope that a frisky, younger “running mate” might enliven the stale campaign roadshows and rejuvenate the two elderly nominees. Clinton, if elected, will take office at 69, the second-oldest president in history, eight months behind Ronald Reagan. Trump, who turns 70 in June, would set the new standard.
Why would anyone want this job, playing understudy to presidents? Certainly not because of the office itself, devoid of power, portfolio, even of dignity. Vice President Richard Nixon survived attempts to “dump” him in 1952 and again in 1956. Through it all he loyally served Dwight Eisenhower and was himself nominated for president in 1960. In late August, with the election 10 weeks away, Nixon was locked in a tight race with John F Kennedy when Eisenhower was asked what “major idea” Nixon had contributed during their eight-year partnership. “If you give me a week, I might think of one,” Eisenhower replied. “I don’t remember.”
Kennedy won, and treated his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, more shabbily still, banishing him to the outermost precincts of his administration. In frustration, he “began spending more and more time on his ranch [in Texas], leaving Washington on Thursday and not returning until Monday,” Robert Caro writes in his monumental life of Johnson. “To while away the time, he played endless games of dominoes with his ranch foreman.”
And yet Nixon and Johnson eventually became president—and abused their own vice presidents in turn.