By John Barron
As the Republican presidential nominating contest draws to an effective close, attention is now turning to whom Mitt Romney will choose as his vice presidential running mate. It will be the subject of much speculation over the next three months and history shows it could be a crucial decision.
It was Vice President John Nance Garner who ruefully described his job as not being worth a “warm bucket of spit.” Garner served two terms under Democratic icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt between 1933 and 1941 and pretty much did what the constitution required of him: be ready to break a tie in the Senate and be ready in case the President died. Garner, who was from Texas, had run against Roosevelt for the 1932 Democratic nomination and he and the wealthy New Yorker just didn’t get along. FDR did, of course, die in office, but not until four years after he’d given Garner the flick.
But a lot has changed since the time of “Cactus Jack” Garner.
It was probably Jimmy Carter’s Vice President Walter Mondale (1977–81) who started to redefine the role, and, to a greater or lesser extent, those who have followed — George Bush, Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden — have all been given a lot more to do than old Cactus Jack.
This past week on Planet America we spoke to Mickey Kantor, who chaired Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign and headed up the search for his running mate and Vice President Al Gore.
Gore was in some ways an unusual pick. Historically the VP slot is used to “balance” the ticket — often geographically, but sometimes in gender, religion or ethnicity. Two presidential candidates from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, picked a Southerner from Texas (Lyndon Johnson and Lloyd Bentsen) giving them what was called the “Boston-Austin Axis.”
When former VP Walter Mondale ran for the presidency against incumbent Ronald Reagan in 1984, he picked the first female vice presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, whose New York roots also helped to balance his mid-western origins.
I wanted Mickey Kantor to explain his thinking in picking Al Gore, a centrist Democratic baby-boomer from the Southern state of Tennessee to run with, in Bill Clinton, a centrist Democratic baby-boomer from the Southern state of Arkansas?
“After we made the decision he was qualified and we thought [Gore] had more ability than anyone else we had vetted we looked at one thing … age and a new generation and a contrast to George H.W. Bush … who was older, and we thought the contrast would play well in 1992, and it did.”
So, instead of “balancing” Clinton on the ticket, Al Gore reinforced Clinton’s youthful image and the message of generation change.
By the time Al Gore was picked to be Clinton’s running mate, the Arkansas governor has already faced allegations of infidelity that had nearly derailed his campaign: the “Gennifer Flowers affair.” Was Kantor factoring the possibility of more sex scandals when picking Clinton’s VP?
“We didn’t think of that … What was in the forefront of our minds was that anything can happen to anybody no matter how good a shape they’re in — an accident, a terrorist act, heart attack — you don’t know and so and so you’ve got to pick someone who can step into that office and perform effectively.”
And what is involved in “vetting” the candidates so you don’t end up with a scandal on your hands, like in 1972, when Democratic nominee George McGovern hastily added Tom Eagleton to his ticket without knowing he’d had electro-shock therapy for depression?
“We started in 1992 with 45 names on the list,“ Kantor told us. “We knocked the first list down to 35, then we had about 75 volunteer lawyers from major law firms working with us to vet. We started with a fairly shallow vet — not looking at anything in depth, and then we got down to around ten, we really went in-depth. It’s easier today to do because of the internet.”
Kantor says the way a candidate and his campaign team go about picking a VP is telling — and that John McCain’s impulsive choice of an unqualified Sarah Palin in 2008 rightly counted against him.
So with all of that in mind, who should Mitt Romney be looking for in 2012?
Should Romney look for a Gore-like “reinforcer”: a governor, senator, or member of the House with a strong economic record? That would put Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, or Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan in the frame.
Should he look for a candidate to provide geographical, ethnic, or gender balance? That could see Senator Marco Rubio or Senator Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire on the short-list.
While Mickey Kantor says he doesn’t expect Mitt Romney will be asking for his advice, he’d suggest former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
30 April 2012