The Running Mate Rollout: How 1996 Foreshadowed 2020
Our divided country has a new vice presidential candidate, one who breaks the mold of previous nominees in several ways, and who -- if she ever ascends to the Oval Office -- would shatter the most iconic glass ceiling you’ve heard tell of. In other ways, however, Joe Biden’s selection of California’s junior senator as his running mate was a reassuringly familiar ritual.
Twenty-four years to the day before Kamala Harris was chosen to fill out the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential ticket, Jack Kemp showed up with Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole in San Diego for the GOP convention. Dole had settled on Kemp after a long process of vetting and contemplating (sound familiar?) and Kemp had flown to Dole’s hometown of Russell, Kan., for the formal announcement. As they arrived in Kemp’s boyhood turf in Southern California, the two Republican warhorses faced a formidable task: unseating Bill Clinton and Al Gore during a time of peace and prosperity.
After some initial surprise (it was assumed Dole would choose a Republican governor or a trusted Senate colleague), Kemp’s choice proved popular with the GOP delegates in San Diego -- just as Kamala Harris’ selection has already garnered support among Democratic Party movers and shakers.
But Jack Kemp was not as obvious a choice as Kamala Harris, albeit for some of the same reasons. For starters, Kemp’s temperament -- like Harris’ -- hardly seemed naturally suited to being anybody’s No. 2. These aren’t Mike Pence-type personalities we’re talking about. When Kemp, a former professional football star, was asked if the surprise announcement had left him unprepared, he crowed, “Quarterbacks are always ready.”
In truth, Kemp had been a very good quarterback, but that wasn’t the job Dole was offering. A veep is an understudy. He’s the backup QB. Does that role suit Sen. Harris? Well, if the Democrats win in November, I reckon we’ll find out.
With Kemp, as with Harris, there was another speed bump: a history of acrimony between the people on the ticket. Harris’ problems with Biden are well-known because she aired them out earlier this year in the Democratic primary debates. As it turns out, that was mostly hot air. Besides, the way things are going in this country, have a woman of color challenge an older white man on the subject of race is not a bad look for those in the party’s left wing.
In mid-August 1996, Bob Dole had to overlook a good deal more to choose Kemp. The two men had been longtime rivals in the Republican Party, and their differences weren’t personal: They were based on vastly different ideas of what constituted sound conservative policy prescriptions.
In the end, the GOP ticket coalesced that year. Dole didn’t unseat Clinton, but it certainly wasn’t Kemp’s fault. He possessed some of the same attributes Harris does. Jack Kemp was good-looking, photogenic, and charismatic. So is Kamala Harris. Both picks made sense in terms of attracting minority voters: Kemp was passionate about Republican outreach to African American communities.
Having said that, in a country obsessed right now with race and gender, Harris’ attributes surpass anything Kemp could ever offer. One of them is an asset that Biden himself made part of the job description. Associated Press reporter Sandra Sobieraj captured it succinctly from Main Street in Russell, Kan., 24 years ago. Walking into Don Dawson’s Pharmacy, the reporter asked clerk Kaylee Karst what she thought of Dole’s choice of Jack Kemp.
“Who?” Karst replied. “I don’t know him. It should be a woman. They never pick a woman.”
Well, they do these days, and Biden did it again Tuesday. And in a time-honored tradition -- pandemic or no pandemic -- the choice for veep will come to the nominee’s home base of Delaware today. It’s not the heart of Kansas, but it might as well be. Hooray for some semblance of normalcy.