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How to Pick a Veep: Eight Historical Criteria

By Carl M. Cannon - May 30, 2012

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After besting “Mr. Republican” (Ohio’s Robert Taft), Dwight Eisenhower allowed party leaders to foist the more conservative Richard Nixon on him in 1952. And it’s why Bob Dole, who had helped ameliorate some of the effects of the Reagan tax cuts while in the Senate, chose supply-side economics evangelist Jack Kemp in 1996.

In an era of highly polarized and politically pure parties, this is harder. The trick is to pair -- in no particular order -- a fire-breather who will excite the base with a centrist-sounding candidate who has potential appeal to independents. It’s harder still for Romney, whose stances on issues have morphed into staunchly right-leaning policy positions, but whom movement conservatives suspect of being a closet moderate.

To “balance” a ticket, he might have to find someone with long-standing conservative cred.

Any number of potential candidates fit this bill, starting with Huckabee and Rick Santorum, the man who finished second to Romney this year. The list includes Rubio and McDonnell, along with New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, the Palin-endorsed “Granite Grizzly” of 2010, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin.

Under this rubric, Romney probably cannot choose from among an attractive roster of pro-choice Republicans ranging from Condoleezza Rice to Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.

DOUBLING-DOWN: Sometimes, presidential nominees and their parties want to send the opposition a message: We really mean it. This was the case with Barry Goldwater in 1964, when he chose obscure New York Rep. William E. Miller as his running mate. Bill Miller was a U.S. Army prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, but his main qualifications were that he was one of the few members of Congress as conservative as Goldwater -- and he personally annoyed Lyndon Johnson.

Doubling-down choices are not usually that prosaic. Bill Clinton pledged to be a “different kind of Democrat,” and his choice of Al Gore underscored this undertaking. He picked a candidate of his own age, from a neighboring Southern state, and fellow member of the centrist-leaning Democratic Leadership Council. In other words, he chose someone who would most likely carry on his policies if it came to that. Privately, Clinton discussed his feelings of mortality with confidants, feelings he came by honestly because his own father died before he was born.

For Romney, truly doubling down might involve picking former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a fellow Mormon and longtime rival considered a “good government” type in the mold of Romney circa 2002. That is unlikely -- the two men don’t even like each other -- and it would put religion on the front burner. But Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, an uncharismatic, but highly competent governor, might fit this bill nicely.

COMPLEMENTARY CHOICE: Most recent presidential tickets feature an inside-Washington and outside-Washington component. A governor and a senator; a Washington insider and someone with outside-the-Beltway bona fides.

More than that, recent political history contains several examples of nominees tapping someone who filled out perceived gaps in their own résumés: Ronald Reagan lacked foreign policy experience, but George H.W. Bush had been ambassador to China and ran the CIA. Bill Clinton lacked a war record, but Al Gore had been to Vietnam. Barack Obama had only been a U.S. senator for 3½ years when he secured the presidential nomination; Joe Biden had been a senator for 3½ decades.

This was another argument for Richard Nixon in 1952. Although Eisenhower’s biography was so sterling he probably could have secured the nomination of either political party, he was utterly new to elective politics. Nixon was the consummate political insider.

So who complements Romney’s résumé?

If the concern is that he can be an awkward campaigner, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is as big a people-person as the Republicans have this side of the Mississippi River. So is the affable and capable Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Christie also mitigates against the rich-guy rap, as do several others, including Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Marco Rubio. The potential veep who best fits the bill in this regard may be former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a working-class conservative who actually quit the race in August 2011, in part because he didn’t want to mortgage his family’s future.

There is some evidence that the personal wealth angle matters to Romney. In 2002, the Republican seemingly in line to be the GOP’s candidate for lieutenant governor was wealthy Boston businessman Jim Rappaport. Democrats could hardly contain themselves at the prospect and were talking about the “Rolls-Royce” ticket. So Romney turned to state party chairwoman Kerry Healey, a self-starter who’d put herself through Harvard on scholarships and money she earned selling souvenirs on Daytona Beach.

Healey, by the way, is available.

DIVERSITY: In 1968, ethnic diversity meant going beyond the WASP gene pool. Nixon wanted a big-city ethnic and tapped Spiro Agnew, who was of Greek descent. On the Democratic side, Hubert Humphrey liked the idea of a Roman Catholic and chose Edmund Muskie.

That wouldn’t cut it today in the pluralism department.

Only two women have been nominated as major party vice presidential candidates in the history of the Republic: Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008. No Asians or Latinos. The rest were white males. One African-American has been nominated, and he’s the current president, which raises the question of whether the days of a white-male ticket are passé.

True, we’ve not had a Mormon president, but that probably doesn’t cut it, either. In 2008, Obama won among women, young people, blacks, and Latinos. If he does it again, by the same margins, the same result will occur.

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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