Choosing the vice president

Welcome back! My apologies for the 3-month hiatus, but I spent the summer traveling to various presidential libraries to do research for my book. With less than 90 days before we choose the next president, however, it’s time to return to my semi-regular election analysis. For those of you who are new to these emails, my objective here is to provide an alternative perspective on the election than what you might receive through the daily news coverage or the various political blogs. The media are very good at reporting daily events, but typically lack perspective and time to interpret those events. I try to draw on political science research to provide a slightly different perspective on the election. The media focus on what is new and different – they look at the election trees. I want to deepen your understanding of this election by focusing on the more fundamental forces that determine election outcomes – that is, I want you to see the forest. As such, my primary audience is students who are just beginning to pay attention to politics. My goal is to get you to empathize with politicians and the political system. The media often snicker at politicians and the political process. But keep in mind that much of the world has no say in the choice of their leaders. We do. We should at least understand how it works.

By the way, this email is being simulcast on my political blog, appropriately titled Presidential Power (the reference will strike home to most of my students I hope). The link is: http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower. If you know of anyone who wants to be added to this list, please let me know.

Tonight will be an abbreviated post, but I want to comment on Obama’s vice presidential choice, which should be announced shortly. Historically, the selection of the vice president has been driven by different considerations. For much of the nation’s history, the position was given to the person who controlled enough delegates to put the nominee over the top at the nominating convention. So Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose John Garner as his Vice President in order to attract enough delegates to win his party’s nomination at the 1932 Democratic convention. With the increasing importance of primaries beginning after the McGovern-Fraser reforms, however, the party’s nominee is usually decided before the convention even is held. So increasingly the vice presidential selection is made with an eye toward securing votes in the general election. But there has been a further complication in the process of selecting the Vice President. For most of the nation’s history, the role of the vice president was marginal at best; once chosen vice presidents spent much of their time attending state funerals and heading meaningless commissions. Harry Truman, for example, had met with FDR only a couple of times before Roosevelt’s death in April, 1945, and Truman knew absolutely nothing about the atomic bomb. All this began to change in 1976, when Jimmy Carter, who had almost no Washington experience, chose Walter Mondale, a Senator from Minnesota with extensive Washington experience, to be his Vice presidential candidate. Mondale played a crucial role in the Carter presidency and set the precedent for choosing vice presidents in part on what they might provide Presidents once in office. One need only to look at the role Richard Cheney has played in the current administration to appreciate the potential power of the next Vice President.

So who should John McCain and Barack Obama choose? Who will they choose? I will focus on Obama in this post. It is tempting to over analyze this decision, but as I’ve has said in several talks on this topic, Obama really only has three choices: Hillary Clinton, Hillary Clinton or Hillary Clinton. There are really only three reasons not to choose Clinton. One is that most of Obama’s core supporters do not like her. But that is largely irrelevant – they are not going to vote for anyone else. Obama doesn’t need to worry about his core supporters – he needs to worry about Clinton’s supporters. The second reason is that Obama does not feel comfortable with Clinton. But history shows that presidents learn to adapt to their Vice President. George Bush had attacked Ronald Reagan’s economic policies as “voodoo economics” during the 1980 campaign, and privately Reagan supporters disparaged Bush as a wimp. But once selected as the VP, Reagan grew to admire Bush. Conversely, Clinton and Gore started the Clinton presidency quite close, but drifted apart after Gore distanced himself from Clinton in the wake of the Lewinsky scandals. In short, it makes little sense to choose the VP primarily on the basis of personal compatibility. The third objection is that by choosing Hillary, you also bring Bill Clinton into the Oval Office. People who worry about this scenario do not understand how easy it is to marginalize the Vice President if one so desires – never mind the VP’s spouse! If Obama wants to marginalize Bill Clinton, it will happen.

The bottom line is that Obama should select Clinton. In terms of maximizing potential election support – which should be the number one criteria in selecting the VP – she is head and shoulders above everyone else. No one else should even be on the short list.

But will Obama go this route? I see one major obstacle – Clinton may not want the job. She may believe that her political future would be better served by staying in the Senate and watching Obama blow the election or get elected and crash and burn. She certainly wants to be asked, of course, but I’m not sure she wants the job. And I’m not sure that Obama – as the agent of change – will recognize the obvious choice here. If he does not, then several candidates stand out, all for electoral reasons. Some, like Joe Biden (chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee) or Sam Nunn (former Senator from Georgia who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee) , help Obama electorally because they compensate for his perceived weakness in foreign policy. Others, like Bill Richardson (Governor of New Mexico), Tim Kaine (Governor of Virginia), or Evan Bayh (senator from Indiana), may help bring critical swing states into the Obama column come November. Others, like Katherine Sebelius (Governor of Kansas), are under consideration because they reinforce Obama’s appeal as the “change” candidate.

Each of these candidates has real liabilities, however (have you ever heard Sebelius give a speech? Can anyone shut Biden up? Virginia voters are actually souring on Kaine, Obama is not going to win Indiana…etc.). If Obama is smart, and if Clinton is willing, this is an obvious choice. She should be the Vice Presidential nominee for the Democratic party. No other candidate should even be under consideration.

If she is not selected, however, I expect Obama to select a “safe” choice – someone who represents both change, and who puts a potential swing state into play. Bill Richardson fits that bill.

A final thought: the choice of the Vice President will get tremendous media play, and will be interpreted by the media as signaling what kind of president Obama wants to be. Beyond the superficial symbolic value, however, there is very little evidence that the choice of a VP will be very significant in determining the election outcome.

I’ll turn to McCain’s choice next… .

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