With rumours flying about running mates for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, now is an apt time to take a look at the vice presidency and current veepstakes.
A Most Insignificant Office
Throughout American history, the Vice President has tended to be a relatively low profile, low significance position barring the unfortunate death of a President in office.
This is because the Vice President’s constitutional power is very limited: he or she sits at the head of the Senate, but cannot exert particular power there, and depending on the will of the President, can largely be swept under the rug during their term.The recent prominence of Joe Biden and Dick Cheney are exceptions to the rule: for the most part, Vice Presidents are forgotten to mainstream history.
Many admit the flimsiness of the position themselves. The 32nd Vice President, John Nance Garner, described the vice presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”. Calvin Coolidge, the 29th Vice President who eventually took Oval Office, stated “I enjoyed my time as vice president. It never interfered with my mandatory 11 hours of sleep a day.”
Even the very first VP, under George Washington, John Adams thought little of the title: “The vice presidency is the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”
The Big Problem
However, in modern presidential elections this poses a problem: the attention paid to the selection of running mates in presidential years is far in excess of the actual significance of the position when it comes to governing.
Candidates use the appointment to offer olive branches to key swing states or factions, though how effective this is in practice is debated. In 1960, John F Kennedy selected Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic ticket, largely so LBJ would deliver his native Texas. In 2008, John McCain was flagging badly in polls against Democratic nominee Barack Obama, so shifted strategy and selected Sarah Palin to energise the base of the Republican Party with disastrous results.
Yet for all the media coverage ascribed to running mate selection, there is absolutely no reason to believe the Veep will play a substantial role in a nominee’s administration. For cynics, they are electoral tools whose significance all but dissipates after the election.
Some Vice Presidents have used the national stage to their advantage, building name recognition and political connections for when their time comes to run for the top office. Others distance themselves from the position, preferring to earn respect for more substantial work in Congress or as governor, and retain independence from the legacy of the President at that time.
The importance of the vice presidency peaks during the election year, and this leads to unfortunate situations like that of Mrs Palin, where an unqualified and unprepared candidate is recruited not based on their suitability for the presidency, but instead electoral demands.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has a number of options, and can use the selection to reach out to her progressive base, individual demographics within the Democratic coalition, or potentially vulnerable states in the Midwest.
After clinching the nomination, there was buzz around Elizabeth Warren. The Senator from Massachusetts is very popular among the progressive wing of the party, with whom Clinton has had a difficult relationship. The prospect of a Clinton-Warren alliance raises the possibility of a two-woman ticket, to the delight of liberals and furrowed brows of cynical pundits who do not think middle America is ready for such change. The Warren buzz has since waned, and though she continues to attack Trump, the likelihood of Warren as VP appears to have diminished.
Recently there has been more speculation over Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. A safer option than Warren, perhaps in no part because he is a while male from a southern state, Kaine is a religious Democrat who is generally liked in Congress. A steady choice, Kaine excites few in this context, but might be an overture to moderates and religious Americans in swing states like Virginia and neighbouring North Carolina. Another potential candidate, Senator Sherrod Brown, also hails from a swing state: Ohio. Brown has cultivated a perception as the champion of working men in the Midwest, an area poised to become a critical battleground in light of controversy over internal trade deals.
One strong contender is Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro. A rising star of the Democratic Party, Castro offers the opportunity to invigorate the election with a youthful, impressive hispanic running mate. Castro would be the first hispanic running mate for the Oval Office, though is under fire from progressives over fallout from some of his mortgage reforms while working under President Obama.
Another current cabinet member under consideration is Labor Secretary Tom Perez. Perez has labelled Trump as an ‘outsourcer in Chief’ as a rebuke to the billionaire’s attacks on trade deals. Perez is also an hispanic, like Castro, but in contrast to his cabinet colleague Perez has spent most of his career working in the gears of government, not elected office. Positioning himself as an ally of unions and workers’ rights, Perez is seen as an accomplished and competent, if less exciting, option.
A dark horse? Al Franken, a Minnesota Senator who was a former comedian and Saturday Night Live writer. Franken is seen as having a strong relationship with the Clintons, has a good reputation in Congress, and may be able to energise the youth and Jewish vote. What’s more, his humour might be an effective way to defuse Trump’s insults for a Democratic nominee who has struggled to inject character and personality into her campaign.
An even darker horse? Bernie Sanders. Though a recent poll indicated he would be a compelling running mate for Hillary Clinton, a Clinton-Sanders ticket looks highly unlikely. Though the two have achieved a fairly painless rapprochement in the aftermath of their primary battles, there is little incentive for Sanders to tether himself to the centrist Clinton at this point in his career, or for Clinton to bring on board a running mate with such baggage. As long as Sanders’ endorses Clinton and unifies the party to defeat Trump, and the Democratic Party agrees to take selected aspects of Bernie’s agenda into their platform, this troubled union would appear more of a headache than an advantage.
Donald Trump’s potential selection of running mates might appear a little slimmer. Trump is faced with various problems going into this election, and his running mate selection appears to be focused on one: unifying the Republican Party behind him.
Though Trump claims his shortlist contains ten names, including a couple of heretofore unannounced generals, commentators have only been able to identify three likely selections after Iowa Senator Joni Ernst and Tennessee Senator Bob Corker withdrew their names from consideration.There are currently two frontrunners.
The first is Newt Gingrich. A Congressional stalwart for Republicans, the gruff Gingrich was at the height of his power as Speaker of the House in the 1990s when he was often bullishly opposing President Bill Clinton. Gingrich left the House in 1999, and unsuccessfully ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, but retains national name-recognition that makes him a potential asset for Donald Trump. Trump has stated that he wants his running mate to be someone who knows how Washington works, and Gingrich is the consummate D.C. insider. The former Speaker has displayed eagerness to speak out for Trump in television interviews, and is reported to be lobbying hard for the nod, though how popular he is with contemporary Republican lawmakers is yet to be seen.
The other frontrunner is Indiana governor Mike Pence. Pence is well regarded among conservative and religious groups, and would be a popular choice if Donald Trump is seeking to unify his fractured party around his candidacy. In particular, Pence would be a popular choice for evangelical Christians, a Republican support base that will need to turn out in large numbers for Trump in the general election, but with whom the presumptive nominee has a tenuous alliance. Beyond that, Pence comes from a Republican state and offers little to key battleground demographics that would broaden Trump’s appeal.
Apparently lagging somewhat behind in the runnings is Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey and former rival of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries. Christie was an early advocate of Trump after he dropped out, one of the first ‘establishment’ Republicans to legitimise Trump’s candidacy. However, while Christie was once the darling of the GOP, having been actively courted to run against Mitt Romney in 2012, his star has fallen somewhat. He is not popular in his home state, and has had his reputation tarnished by scandal during his tenure as governor. Added to which, he has a reputation as being somewhat bullying, a trait that, while shared with Trump and useful in debates, does little to help Trump’s standing with women, moderates, and minorities. Christie’s political career may well be over at this point, and if his hope was to bet the deck on endorsing Trump and earn the VP slot, he may well be disappointed.
A dark horse for Trump? Knowing ‘the Donald’, nothing should be too surprising. Perhaps his daughter, Ivanka Trump, given the importance of his offspring and their partners in his campaign. Or Ted Cruz: Cruz has reportedly accepted a speaking spot at the Republican National Convention, and though he has refused to endorse Trump until now, a Trump-Cruz alliance would create the kind of surprise and news that Trump enjoys.
Or perhaps Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. Sessions is a throwback candidate, and of little help politically: he is from a safe Republican state in the south, and virulently anti immigration. Though Sessions would not be able to broaden Trump’s appeal, he was one of the first to endorse the real estate mogul and has a longstanding reputation as a hardline conservative.
The vice presidency may or may not be worth more than a bucket of warm piss, but our current presumptive nominees see value in their running mates. For Hillary Clinton, her choice gives her the opportunity to reach out to a specific part of her broad Democratic coalition of support to boost enthusiasm. For Donald Trump, his decision may help him finally put to rest the infighting and dissension that shakes the Republican Party on a weekly basis.