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How to Pick a Veep: Eight Historical Criteria

How to Pick a Veep: Eight Historical Criteria

By Carl M. Cannon - May 30, 2012


When Mitt Romney chooses a running mate, it will be the first significant command decision the U.S. electorate sees him make. While few Americans will base their vote on it, the process of choosing a running mate is an act that helps define a candidate, stamps an administration, and often leaves its mark on history.

Fourteen vice presidents have eventually become president, including eight who assumed office after the death of a chief executive, and a ninth -- Gerald Ford -- who assumed office after the resignation of a president. Four won election in their own right while serving as vice president, four others won their party’s nomination but did not make it to the White House. (Four vice presidents have won Nobel Prizes.) So who should Mitt Romney choose?

In an era in which Republican politicians are obliged to show fealty to the Framers, the latter are precious little help to Romney. The Constitution is utterly silent on the qualifications for vice president. It took the 12th Amendment to figure out how they should be chosen, but even there, the only duties delineated involve presiding over the Senate.

The last two “veep” choices show the pitfalls of selecting someone for this undefined post. Sarah Palin ignited passions at the 2008 GOP convention in Minnesota and saved John McCain from following his gut feeling and picking Joe Lieberman, who is neither a conservative nor a Republican. But McCain barely knew Palin, let alone her proclivity for “going rogue.” Then again, perhaps he should have suspected: Her main appeal to McCain was that she was a fellow maverick -- and mavericks are, by definition, difficult to control.

Speaking of which, Joe Biden had established a reputation for loose talk -- and a lot of it -- long before Barack Obama was in public life. Obama knew this, as he spent the better part of a year competing with Biden on the 2008 campaign trail. In the end, he picked someone with whom he felt personally comfortable, although we will have to wait for the written histories of this presidency to know how Obama reacted when Biden dropped the f-bomb at a press conference, mangled a Supreme Court justice’s name, proclaimed “jobs” a three-letter word -- and took the lead on gay marriage.

Speaking of marriage, in effect that’s what a presidential nominee and vice-presidential running mate have (although there have been divorces). Historical precedent suggests that there are eight different reasons Number Twos are chosen. These reasons can be competing, and are often overlapping. And everyone of them might come into consideration in 2012.

GEOGRAPHY: Balancing the ticket regionally is the oldest of considerations. Originally, that meant balance between North and South, and it’s why James Madison of Virginia ran with George Clinton of New York.

Democrats, Whigs, and Federalists practiced this kind of balancing until the Civil War. So did the nascent Republican Party when it burst on the scene in 1856. That year, the Republican ticket was comprised of California’s John Fremont and William Dayton of New Jersey. Because they had no presence in the South, Republicans were careful four years later to pair up Illinois’ Abraham Lincoln with Hannibal Hamlin of Maine.

One hundred years later, although slavery was no longer the issue, Richard Nixon (California) chose Henry Cabot Lodge (Massachusetts) as his running mate. Massachusetts is often in the geographical balance mix: Bay State Democrats John F. Kennedy and Michael Dukakis chose Texans as running mates in 1960 and 1988, respectively, albeit with different results, and in 2004 John Kerry chose a North Carolinian.

Who would fit the geographic bill for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney? Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and perhaps two Floridians: Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.

IDEOLOGICAL BALANCE: Geography often has implied ideology as well; certainly this was true in pre-Civil War times, the Jim Crow years, and the civil rights era.

In 1932, the liberal and patrician Franklin Roosevelt chose House Speaker John Nance Garner, a rural conservative lawmaker from Red River County, Texas. “Cactus Jack” is immortalized for describing the vice presidency as “not worth a warm bucket of piss.”

Twenty years later, Illinois liberal Democrat Adlai Stevenson chose Alabama conservative (and segregationist) John Sparkman. In the post-civil rights era, this has been a more subtle exercise for both major political parties.

In 1976, Ronald Reagan sought to reassure moderate Republicans that he wasn’t some fire-breathing John Bircher by announcing that, if nominated, he’d run with Pennsylvania’s Richard Schweiker, who had compiled a liberal-to-moderate voting record in the Senate. The same year, Jimmy Carter tapped Minnesota Democrat Walter Mondale, a liberal force in the Senate, for similar reasons.

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

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