Choosing a running mate will be the most important decision John Kerry makes between now and November–not only because vice presidents stand a reasonably good chance of becoming presidents, but because they are such a key part of electioneering. Kerry probably won’t announce his selection until the summer, but with the Democratic presidential nomination all but clinched, the season of speculation may begin.
The traditional rules of veep selection will apply. Most people base their vote on who sits at the top of the ticket, which means that the vice-presidential nominee is not likely to influence the outcome of the race unless it’s close. Moreover, potential running mates must meet the “do no harm” principle–there should be nothing in their backgrounds that might make them liabilities in the fall.
Kerry himself will have to deal with a few unique conditions. He won’t want a running mate from the northeast. He’ll probably want someone from outside Washington, D.C., which means he’ll choose with a bias against a current member of Congress, especially another senator. His running mate will have to stand on stage next to Dick Cheney and appear credible. Finally, Kerry will face pressure from the Clinton faction of his party not to select a partner who would emerge as a rival to Hillary Clinton in 2008 in the event of a Democratic defeat this year.
Herewith, a look at the contenders:
EVAN BAYH: This senator from Indiana is a hawk on the Iraq war and a rising star in the Democratic party. He might put his home state in play, but his main appeal would be his youth, energy, and New Democrat credentials. His membership on the Senate Intelligence Committee would be an asset. Feminist groups might try to nix him because he’s not an abortion-rights absolutist–or possibly get him to pull a Lieberman and renounce his heresy.
WESLEY CLARK: From the standpoint of expectations, no presidential candidate failed so badly in the primaries as this retired general. At least Howard Dean had to rise before he fell; Clark started out near the top and did nothing but tumble. Perhaps more than any other candidate on this list, the unpredictable Clark violates the “do no harm” principle of veep selection.
HILLARY CLINTON: The media will go through several rounds of talking about Hillary as veep, if only because talking about Hillary is a favorite pastime for pundits. But neither Kerry nor Clinton will want this match. The last thing Kerry needs is another “liberal senator from the Northeast” on his ticket. Hillary has a strong incentive to stay away as well. Some potential running mates would see their careers enhanced by losing with Kerry this year: It would establish them as statesmen on their side of the aisle. Yet Hillary’s reputation would suffer and it would hurt her chances in 2008. Also, she has repeatedly promised to serve out her term as senator from New York. Reneging would make her seem–for lack of a better word–Clintonian.
HOWARD DEAN: Forget it. The only rationale for a Kerry-Dean ticket would have been a desperate attempt to unify a torn party.
JOHN EDWARDS: Apart from Kerry, no presidential candidate has beaten more expectations this year than the senior senator from North Carolina: Edwards is the only loser who emerges from this year’s primaries looking better than he did before getting in. He continues to run a veep-friendly campaign and is already generating some buzz about a Kerry-Edwards ticket. What’s more, Kerry will face some pressure to go with a southerner. Yet Edwards hasn’t exactly been a Dixie powerhouse–his single triumph in South Carolina didn’t translate into victories in Tennessee and Virginia. Another strike is that he’s a fellow senator. There’s a chance he would make North Carolina competitive for Kerry, but no guarantee. Odds are he’ll appear on Kerry’s short list until the bitter end–but that he won’t make the final cut.
HAROLD FORD: Some vice-presidential short lists are compiled for public consumption–certain names are placed on them to flatter and court particular individuals and constituencies. There’s no doubt that Kerry will want to be seen as giving serious consideration to a black running mate, even if he isn’t really going to pick one. The most likely politician to fill this role is Harold Ford, a young congressman from Tennessee who is believed to have a bright future on Capitol Hill. Talk of a Kerry-Ford ticket will boost both Kerry and Ford, but it won’t happen.
DICK GEPHARDT: The ultimate safe pick. The St. Louis congressman has been vetted enough times to guarantee that there are no surprises lurking in his closet. Although he may be seen as a Democratic dinosaur, he’s experienced and gaffe-proof. He would put Missouri in play and might help out in other union-heavy Midwestern states (though his poor performance in the Iowa caucuses may suggest otherwise). A Kerry-Gephardt ticket would mollify the party’s protectionist wing, which is skeptical of Kerry’s vote for NAFTA a decade ago. Gephardt’s modest upbringing also makes him one of several contenders who would nicely balance Kerry’s privileged background. His recent endorsement of Kerry is another plus.
BOB GRAHAM: If this Florida senator had been the Democratic veep nominee in 2000, we’d probably be in the midst of a primary battle to pick a GOP challenger to President Gore. Graham’s disappointing presidential run hurt his chances in 2004, though he did have the sense to exit before the embarrassment became fatal. Kerry will make a play for Florida this year, but the GOP is better positioned there than it was four years ago. Graham’s impact today is probably less than it once would have been. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he does come with foreign-policy credentials.
JENNIFER GRANHOLM: Looks great on paper as an attractive female governor of a swing state (Michigan). Too bad for Kerry that she was born in Canada and isn’t eligible for the Oval Office.
JIM HUNT: The other veep candidate from North Carolina. This retired governor has won plenty of elections in his home state, though a 1984 Senate loss to Jesse Helms prevented him from becoming a national figure. He’s no spring chicken–he’ll be 67 on Election Day–but he’s a Washington outsider who would play about as well in the south as anybody Kerry might pick.
GARY LOCKE: If Democrats think they need this governor to carry the state of Washington, then they’ve got some big problems. Going with Locke would generate very good notice in the press (plus lots of headline puns about “Picking Locke”) because Locke, an Asian American, would be the first nonwhite candidate on a presidential ticket. But would black and Hispanic loyalists grumble that they were more deserving of the honor?
JANET NAPOLITANO: The governor of Arizona is probably the top female contender for Kerry–she’s not from D.C. and she might put her GOP-friendly home state into question. But Kerry should keep in mind that while Geraldine Ferraro was making history in 1984 as Walter Mondale’s running mate, Ronald Reagan was winning the women’s vote. Perhaps the politics of the gender gap have changed, but then again maybe not as much as Democrats might hope. Furthermore, Napolitano would have a tough time looking like she’s as ready as Dick Cheney to become commander in chief.
SAM NUNN: Worth considering only because the evil genius James Carville mentioned him as a possibility. As a Georgian, he adds a southerner to the ticket–though it’s far from clear that he would provide a significant lift in his home state, which is now solidly Republican. He is viewed as one of his party’s elder statesmen on security issues.
BILL RICHARDSON: The governor of New Mexico is often mentioned because he’s Hispanic. But don’t be fooled: The Hispanic influence on the Electoral College is often misunderstood. If no Hispanics had voted four years ago, the election results in only two states would have changed: Florida would have gone for Gore and New Mexico would have gone for Bush. (Bush would have won the popular vote but Gore would be president–all because of Cuban Americans.) It’s hard to see how Richardson’s addition to the Democratic ticket would give Kerry critical advantages anywhere except New Mexico. Picking Richardson makes more sense for Democrats thinking about long-term demographic alignments than it does for Kerry thinking about November. Despite all this, Richardson is one of the best Democratic pols in the country–a governor with genuine foreign-policy experience as UN ambassador and as a congressman who secured hostage releases around the world. He would probably make Kerry’s short list even if his mother hadn’t been Mexican.
ROBERT RUBIN: Selecting the former treasury secretary would be compared to Bush’s choice of Cheney four years ago–a decision that has nothing to do with geography and everything to do with boosting credibility. In Rubin’s case, it would signal to Wall Street and the investor class that a Kerry presidency is nothing to fear–and perhaps create fundraising opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist. It would also seek to remind people of prosperity during the Clinton presidency and give Kerry a very effective surrogate for attacking Bush’s economic record. Interesting trivia: A poll for USA Today in 2000 showed a Gore-Rubin ticket outperforming a Gore-Kerry ticket.
TOM VILSACK: The governor of Iowa presumably would go a long way toward securing his home state, which the GOP hopes to capture this year. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Vilsack’s wife endorsed Kerry before the caucuses last month, during Kerry’s surprising surge. (In a piece for NRO on Monday, David Hogberg explained why he doubts Vilsack will end up on the Democratic ticket.)
FEARLESS PREDICTION: This wouldn’t be punditry if it didn’t include some guesswork. Much will ride on the question of how optimistic Democrats are feeling this summer: Will Kerry be forced into a bold and strategic choice or can he be more conservative and tactical? My own sense is that the race will be close to the end, with Democrats believing they have a realistic chance of defeating Bush. Kerry will pick Gephardt–and he’ll be glad he did.