Two months ago, former senator Fred Thompson’s nascent presidential campaign looked great. Conservative and establishment leaders were poised to jump on board his pick-up truck. Fundraising heavyweights were waiting in the wings. And he was positioned to run powerfully into the void of the conservative primary electorate that remained uneasy with the other leading candidates.
#ad#But two months of relative inactivity is a long time in a constantly moving campaign dynamic. In that time, the Republican race has witnessed the collapse of one-time frontrunner John McCain, the victories of Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee in Ames, and Rudy Giuliani’s maintenance of his lead in national GOP polling despite increased scrutiny and attacks leveled against him. While Fred Thompson’s candidacy still holds considerable potential, he might have missed his moment. Why did he wait?
The Thompson campaign offers reasons for the delay, mostly concerning its desire to get its team fully in place for a well-orchestrated roll out. Yet that seems a stretch. Campaign professionals are accustomed to operating on the fly, and they understand the imperative of striking when the time is right. The wait has cost Thompson dearly, and it appears to have provided no strategic benefit.
There is one thing, however seemingly unlikely, that could explain the otherwise puzzling delay. What if Fred Thompson is preparing to announce his choice of vice president when he announces his candidacy next week?
Craig Shirley notes in his authoritative book on Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign that a non-incumbent candidate for president had never named his running mate prior to his nominating convention — until Reagan did so that year. Reagan chose moderate Pennsylvania senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate as a strategic move to alter the dynamics of his challenge to Gerald Ford. He did so several weeks before the convention, at a time when the outcome was still very much in question. The national media, no friend of Reagan’s, widely hailed the move as “bold” and “dazzling.”
The nominating calendar in 2008 is vastly different from 1976. In 1976, there were primaries and state conventions well into July, with Reagan and Ford trading victories and fiercely battling for uncommitted delegates at each stop along the way. This time around the nominee will be determined almost certainly by the slew of primaries on February 5, if not sooner. To have the same effect, a Republican candidate attempting to follow Reagan’s precedent in 2008 would need to name his running mate this December at the latest.
The vice presidency has historically been the victim of countless jokes about the office’s inconsequentiality. Notwithstanding the critical role Dick Cheney has played in the current administration, the insignificance of the federal government’s number-two job has frequently been made manifest.
In the 2008 presidential election, however, the identity of the next Republican vice presidential nominee could be crucially important for the conservative movement. If one accepts the notion that the leading GOP presidential candidates are less than ideal conservatives, then a candidate’s selection of a running mate takes on a significance beyond that of previous years.
Should any of the ideologically questionable frontrunners win the presidency, a strong conservative could have an enormous impact as vice president. If Rudy Giuliani were president, for example, imagine the different policy pressures that would be brought to bear by a vice president Jon Kyl, rather than a vice president Tom Ridge. Eight years later, that vice president would also be the heir apparent to the Republican nomination.
Alternatively, if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2008, the losing GOP vice-presidential nominee could have a major leg-up on the 2012 presidential competition. The conservative movement could go a long way toward avoiding a repeat in 2012 of the anxiety it is now experiencing with the absence of one of its own among the leading presidential candidates.
The selection of the vice presidential nominee is a curious thing. The candidates for president spend nearly every waking moment for two or more years pursuing the top job, and they are put through every manner of examination and dissection. Then, the number-two person is selected without any input from voters, without having gone through a public vetting process. Short of an unprecedented revolt by delegates at the national convention, there is no way to alter that selection. And typically, it takes place only a couple months before the general election.
It has become common for GOP presidential candidates to be asked what kind of Supreme Court appointments they would make. That is certainly an important inquiry, but because it is always hypothetical, with the date of the appointment potentially years away, it’s a very easy question for candidates to duck. They simply say nice things about justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito. One can only speculate about the truthfulness of the candidates’ campaign promises.
Given the enormous stakes for the conservative movement in the identity of the next vice-presidential nominee, and given that it is not a hypothetical consideration, but a decision that must be made next year, it would make sense for conservatives to start asking the frontrunners to the presidency this question now. The voters, the candidates, and the conservative movement would all benefit from early vice-presidential selections from the frontrunners.
For Republican primary voters who are already saturated with information about, and bored by, the current slate candidates — get used to it. There are still four more months to go before the first votes are cast. Then, following the lightning quick primary schedule, there will be another seven months, from February until the convention in September, in which the vice presidential choice would traditionally be held in abeyance. The early selection of interesting and inspiring running mates could do much to liven up the playing field. That’s no small thing for a party that faces a significant motivation gap with the Democrats.
The candidates would also benefit. The frontrunners are taking great pains to prove their conservative credentials. Given their records, however, there’s only so much they can do. Giuliani calls for strict constructionist judges to help overcome his socially liberal positions. Romney’s path to a strongly conservative platform is so muddled by his previous positions that he leaves voters wondering who the real Mitt is. Thompson will undoubtedly take steps to gloss over his strong support for McCain-Feingold and his embrace by trial lawyers. Announcing their running mate before the primaries begin would give any of them the best possible opportunity to convey how they would govern.
The candidates could also use their pick to change the primary election map, just as Reagan attempted to do in 1976. Southerner Fred Thompson, for example, is polling quite well in South Carolina, but not so well in Iowa or New Hampshire. His late entry and under-funded campaign might never get off the ground in those critical, first two states. But he could deal himself into the game by making known his veep selection. New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg might want to make sure that his former colleague has his cell number. Choosing Gregg as his running mate would propel Thompson into contention in New Hampshire like nothing else he could do, and it would fundamentally alter the electoral calculations of every other candidate.
Mostly, the conservative movement would benefit from early selections. In the cadence of presidential politics, the time leading up to the Republican primaries is when conservatives’ leverage is at its highest point. Once the February 5 primaries are over, and a nominee is effectively chosen, that leverage diminishes greatly.
Let’s say, for example, that on the morning of February 6, it’s apparent that the Democrats have chosen Hillary Clinton, and the Republicans have picked Mitt Romney. Romney would then be under pressure to counter Hillary’s gender appeal, and to make amends to the national media for his move to the right to win the nomination. What’s to stop Romney from choosing former New Jersey governor Christie Whitman or a similar electorally appealing liberal Republican for vice president? Of course, if he chose his running mate anytime before February 6, there’s not a chance in the world that he would pick Whitman.
Among the candidates, Giuliani probably has the most to gain by an early selection. Unique among the GOP field, he runs a risk of fueling a conservative third-party opponent in the general election based on the pro-life issue. Those who would promote such a candidacy would likely be undeterred by the fact that it would virtually ensure the election of a Democrat. However, they might well be deterred by the selection of a solidly pro-life running mate, who then becomes next in line for the presidency in four or eight years. Of course, Giuliani could make that move in the traditional convention period. If he were to wait the full seven months between securing the nomination and the convention, however, he might be too late to head off a third-party candidacy; at the least he would be forced to endure a media spectacle on this question, such that it would look like a cave-in should he then make a pro-life selection. He’s better off putting the issue aside early, and in so doing enhancing his prospects in the primaries themselves.
There are dangers with an early selection, to be sure. When Reagan chose an ideological mismatch — a Ford supporter and a man whom he barely knew — he temporarily alienated some of his core supporters on the Right. The early choice of a running mate would obviously bother those voters who don’t care about the signal the choice is meant to send. There’s also the media scrutiny that the running mate would undergo, which could turn up controversies in his or her record that would threaten to engulf the presidential candidate. And there’s the awkwardness of a two-person ticket running against lone candidates in the primaries. (There’s a good chance, though, that if one of the leading candidates chose early, the others would not long resist the pressure to do likewise.)
Disappointed with the performance of his successor in the White House, it has been reported that President Reagan ultimately regretted choosing George H. W. Bush as his running mate. In retrospect, the conservative movement can trace numerous policy and political setbacks over many years to that fateful decision. The vice presidency might well be an inconsequential office in itself. But its ripple effects have the potential to transform American government for years to come. This time around, conservatives ought to be paying very close attention to the vice presidency, and they ought to be asking the presidential frontrunners about it now.
– Jon Lerner is a Republican pollster and media consultant.