A half-century ago, there was a predictable quality to the way presidential nominees selected their running mates. They would do so at their nominating conventions in a moment of often high drama. In 1960, word broke during the Republican Convention that Richard Nixon had offered the vice presidential nomination to Nelson Rockefeller. Conservatives were outraged and nearly rebelled. In the event, Rockefeller refused the offer and Nixon chose the diplomat Henry Cabot Lodge.
The 1964 Democratic convention was largely an anti-climactic affair. Incumbent President Lyndon Johnson was nominated by acclamation. The drama centered on his running mate. Would Johnson select Robert Kennedy, the late President Kennedy’s younger brother? In the end, he chose Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, who had played an instrumental role in gaining passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Conventions still supplied this kind of drama into the 1980’s. Before Ronald Reagan selected George H.W. Bush as his running mate at the 1980 Republican Convention, there was a brief boomlet to nominate former President Gerald Ford for vice president. When Jesse Jackson delegates at the 1988 Democratic Convention indicated that they would support their candidate for vice president, it was decided to give the nomination to Lloyd Bentsen by voice vote and avoid the potential problems of a roll call.
Over the decades, the selection process evolved. Vice presidential candidates now undergo a far more extensive vetting process than they did half a century ago. And as a result, decisions are often made earlier in the selection process.
Thus Bill Clinton chose Al Gore as his running mate a few days before the Convention in 1992. Bob Dole asked Jack Kemp to run with him a week before the Republican Convention in 1996. And who can forget Dick Cheney, who was serving as the chair of George W. Bush’s search committee for a running mate in 2000? The name he finally forwarded to Bush was his own, and Bush settled on Cheney a week before the 2000 Republican Convention commenced.
We seem, however, to be entering another new phase in the choosing of vice presidential candidates — the casting call. We have seen signs of this in both parties, though it is more prominent in the Republican. Consider Donald Trump and the candidates whom he has been looking at for the number two slot.
Earlier this week, we saw Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee go out for a test drive with The Donald. Corker has a reputation for seriousness. He was a real estate developer in Chattanooga before entering public life, so had that much in common with Trump. But since securing election to the Senate in 2006, he has established a reputation for himself on foreign policy thanks to his chairing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Unlike Trump, he was a hawk on Iraq. While Corker’s positions can be criticized — I certainly take issue with many of his stances — he can be an articulate defender of a traditionally assertive and conservative foreign policy.
Still, he submitted to auditioning for the role of running mate. He spoke to a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, told the crowd that they had every right to be excited about Donald Trump, and was praised in turn by Trump. The two men got on well, it seemed, but then Corker withdrew his name from consideration. On the way out the door, he suggested that maybe Trump’s daughter Ivanka should be his running mate.
The next night, Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump campaigned together in suburban Cincinnati. Gingrich has long been at the center of rumors about the vice presidency. On paper, he has some strong credentials as a long-time member of the House of Representatives and a former House Speaker. Still, there are huge negatives. Between them, Trump and Gingrich have six marriages. Gingrich was reprimanded for ethics violations by the House of Representatives in 1997 and required to reimburse the House for the costs of the investigation. His impeachment of Bill Clinton caused him further embarrassment, and he eventually resigned from the Speakership and from the House.
On the other hand, if one watches the video of Gingrich introducing Trump in Ohio, one cannot fail to notice a certain rapport between the two men. Gingrich has many very large flaws. He has led an ethically challenged life. He has been on both sides of any number of issues (most recently, he abandoned his career-long embrace of free trade). Justifiably, he makes an inviting target for Democrats. Still, I can envision Trump selecting Gingrich as his running mate.
Trump has also been rumored to have Governor Mike Pence of Indiana on his short list, though they have yet to do any campaign appearances. I expect that if Pence becomes a serious contender for the number two position, that we will Trump taking him for a public audition. Pence is an establishment-conservative type. He tepidly supported Ted Cruz in the primaries. He has strong connections with the evangelical wing of the party. Still, I have a hard time imagining Trump selecting Pence. Pence is not a nationally known figure, and Indiana, his home state, is already likely to go Republican.
If I had to make a prediction, I would say that Trump will probably choose Newt Gingrich. I could never vote for that ticket. I find many of the positions both men have taken absolutely anathema. Trump has coarsened American politics. He has torn the veneer off American political culture and has revived ugly racist, xenophobic ways of acting and talking that we have not seen since the 1930’s. Gingrich proved during his long tenure in Congress that he was much better at tearing down than building up. The two candidates are somehow made for each other, though their election would be disastrous for America.
But Trump is not the only candidate hosting casting-calls for running mate. While she has been more subtle about it, Hillary Clinton is engaged in the same process. And since this is an auditioning process that is clearly all about eliciting public feedback, I shall offer some insights on my two favorites.
I would encourage Clinton to think seriously about Elizabeth Warren as her running mate. There are now two wings of the Democratic Party, the progressive and the establishment. Elizabeth Warren knows the hymn book of the progressive movement. When she speaks about social justice, she catches people’s attention. And social justice is, or should be, the central issue of the 2016 election.
Xavier Becerra is the other candidate I favor. I have enjoyed watching his own quietly strong performance. He was particularly effective on the talk shows the weekend Clinton was interviewed by the FBI. Methodically, convincingly, he offered a strong defense of Clinton when she most needed it.
Like Warren, Becerra comes from the progressive wing of the Party. He has been a strong defender of Social Security and Medicare. And he would be ready to assume the burdens of the presidency, which is always the most solemn and important duty of any vice president.
Who will it be? The drama is building.
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