Rarely does a presidential candidate’s running mate affect the outcome of an election. Paul Ryan did not help Mitt Romney defeat President Obama — not even in Wisconsin. Lloyd Bentsen did not deliver Texas for Michael Dukakis. Disaffection for Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney didn’t keep either Bush from becoming President.
Even Sarah Palin probably didn’t in the end swing that many voters for or against John McCain.
Still, high-paid campaign consultants insist a veep pick can be a useful messaging device to help craft a candidate’s image. South Carolina-born John Edwards was chosen to help assure Democrats that Brahmin multi-millionaire John Kerry was still “of the people.”
A veep pick is also supposedly an opportunity to make history — but just ask Walter Mondale and Al Gore if having what would have been the first woman or the first Jew on a presidential ticket helped them get to the White House.
Others still will say a vice presidential pick can correct for a candidate’s political deficiency. But if voters were truly concerned about foreign policy, for example — the common justification for Obama’s selection of Sen. Joe Biden — wouldn’t they just have voted for Biden? Or, in the general election, McCain?
All this said, however, this year two of the least popular candidates for president are sticking voters with a lesser-of-two-evils choice in November. With some of the highest unfavorables in presidential history, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could stand to gain — even if fractionally — by picking a meaningfully good running mate.
It’s an especially consequential pick for Trump, who’s never held public office. Here, however, Trump is in a particularly tough spot.
For one, his campaign’s marked lack of traditional infrastructure has led to a series of terrible decisions over the course of the election — bad hires, bad messaging, bad management, bad preparation (sometimes no preparation). Sure, you could argue this clusterfudge has gotten him pretty far, but actually all of this winging it hasn’t put Trump in a good position against Clinton.
Had he been better organized and less impulsive, he might be leading in the polls and heading into the Republican National Convention with a unified party behind him, neither of which is the case.
So the hope that Team Trump will credibly vet and carefully choose his running mate is probably wishful thinking, as is evidenced by the campaign’s apparent strategy of floating possible names on Twitter to see what social media thinks.
There’s also the obvious problem of a lack of interest from potential partners. Trump insisted on Twitter that “It is only the people that were never asked to be VP that tell the press that they will not take the position,” but that seems highly unlikely. From the party’s obvious choices, like South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, to its biggest names, like Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, few credible Republican leaders want this job. As South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham put it, “That’s like buying a ticket on the Titanic.”
Of those who are openly campaigning for the job, none is a clear value-add. Former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is a mirror image of Trump on immigration, if more policy-oriented, doing little to attract the constituents he needs to make a dent in Clinton’s minority stronghold.
Newt Gingrich would add knowledge and experience, but would seriously blunt Trump’s anti-establishment credibility. Gingrich and Washington are synonymous.
Other often-mentioned suspects — Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions and Bob Corker — are good lawmakers and good conservatives. But that isn’t what Trump needs.
This leaves just a few potentially helpful and plausible choices.
One is Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, with whom Trump met Monday. She’s new to politics, and thus still credibly an “outsider.” She’s fond of straight talk and eschews political correctness. But is she savvy enough to handle the national scrutiny — especially on a Trump ticket — that lies ahead?
Another is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has glommed on to Trump ever since dropping out himself. Despite bashing Trump for months, he now seems perfectly willing to wholeheartedly embrace the man’s attitude, rhetoric and policies, and is politically prepared for a harsh media spotlight. But having essentially two Trumps on one ticket may not widen his appeal all that much.
In my eyes, Trump’s best pick is Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn. She’s experienced and politically sophisticated, but still evokes an everyman appeal. She can soften his ticket while still embracing strength and toughness, and she’s smart enough to spin his inevitable outbursts into plausible policy proposals. It’s tough to see where she damages his chances, and could have an improbable opportunity to better them.
But will Trump make a smart pick? Or careen, as he has so far, gut-first through the selection process? As for Hillary, well, we’ll save her veep troubles for another column.
Contact S.E. at thesecupp.com.
This column originally appeared in the New York Daily News.
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