To those of you who've been feeling socially inadequate because your mind goes blank whenever the subject of Who Should Be Al Gore's Running Mate comes up at barbecues or on white-water rafting trips: relax. The American Prospect's poll of the experts conducted in late June has uncovered a similar dearth of suggestions among the Democrats' keenest thinkers, not to mention an objective dearth of suitable vice presidential material.
Consider this sample of responses from the party's ablest strategists:
From one of the Democrats' most respected consultants: "I don't think we've got anybody who it makes political sense to put on the ticket."
From one of Washington's most highly regarded pollsters, asked about the merits of the Democrats' heavyweights: "Who are the Democratic heavyweights?"
From one of the most politically savvy members of the House: "If you want a woman--who? Kathleen Kennedy Townsend? Come on."
From a veteran operative of Democratic cause groups, asked who would help Gore: "Boy, who helps Gore?"
And finally, from one of the canniest operatives in the union movement, also asked who would help Gore: Long pause. Then, "This is hard."
If it demonstrates nothing else, this year's quadrennial guessing game has confirmed that the Democrats are still reeling from 1994's election day blowout. In a word, the party has no bench. There are a scant 22 Democratic governors, and only one of them--California's Gray Davis--from a large state. (For any number of reasons, Davis is out of the question as number-two timber: He is just midway through his second year as governor; California should come down in the Gore column, anyway; a Gore-Davis ticket would only drive more California liberals into Ralph Nader's waiting arms; and while running mates are sometimes selected because they reinforce some general characteristic of the presidential nominee, the characteristics of Gore that Davis reinforces are dullness and an almost preternatural absence of spontaneity.)
Nor is the Democrats' benchlessness confined to the statehouses. A number of historically Democratic city halls have been controlled by Republicans for the past decade. And in Congress, the Democrats have passed the years since 1994 neither in the majority nor, generally, in opposition to the president. They have few legislative achievements to point to or investigations of official misconduct to tout. Aside from Richard Gephardt's impeachment-morning eloquence, is there anything that a congressional Democrat has said or done in the past six years that has registered even slightly in public consciousness?
A Balancing Act
The paucity of Gore's options is particularly glaring in the Jersey City-to-Kansas City belt, the half-dozen mid-Atlantic and industrial midwestern states that are likely to determine the outcome of the election. Where George W. Bush can comparison shop among such GOP luminaries as Christine Todd Whitman, Tom Ridge, John Engler, Tommy Thompson, George Voinovich, John Kasich, and, until recently, John Danforth, Gore's options for a rustbelt running mate are likely confined to two first-term senators: Dick Durbin and Evan Bayh.
But Gore's vice presidential dilemma stretches beyond the Midwest. Unlike Bush, Gore still has to be concerned about locking down his base. In a recent Los Angeles Times poll, Gore was drawing the support of a scant 70 percent of Democrats, while Bush enjoyed the backing of 90 percent of Republicans. At the same time, Bush had a nearly two-to-one lead among independents.
Which is to say, Bush can choose a centrist running mate without fear of alienating his activists, but Gore faces a more delicate balancing act. For Bush a key question is whether Republican true believers will forgive him for picking a perfunctorily pro-choice running mate like Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, though this is not likely a question that keeps Bush awake at night. In fact, from the moment Ralph Reed clambered aboard the Bush express, the right has made clear that Bush could call for collective farms without forfeiting conservative support. "The right understands that if we don't win this, there will be no place it can exert its influence," says one Bush campaign staffer who predicts a Ridge nomination. "Christie Whitman [a much more forthright champion of a woman's right to choose than Ridge] would be a stick in the eye; you can get away with Ridge, but Whitman is too much. It would be good politics to leak Whitman's name a couple of weeks before the convention so that Ridge will seem more palatable."
For Gore, however, choosing a running mate may be more of a zero-sum game. It's not that the 30 percent of Democrats who have somehow resisted the siren call of the Gore campaign are all neatly arrayed on the party's left flank: far from it (though a distinct minority of them are prospective Naderites). But many, particularly in the rustbelt swing states, are white, working-class voters who haven't cashed in on the dot-com mania and who remain apprehensive about the administration's laissez-faire trade policies. The logic of trying to carry the mid-Atlantic and midwestern states suggests a running mate who can make some special appeal to these voters. (Then again, the logic of carrying the mid-Atlantic and midwestern states should have suggested that bringing up permanent normal trade relations for China during this session of Congress was an act of political imbecility. Of the 56 House Democrats from the swing states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Missouri, 52 voted against PNTR--a ratio of 13 to one against the Clinton-Gore position.) And if you buy into this logic, as The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt did in a recent column, you end up suggesting such candidates as Missouri's Gephardt or Durbin of Illinois.
But Hunt's is a minority viewpoint within the punditocracy, which generally believes that Gore needs to pick a running mate with the kind of economically conservative and socially liberal views so prevalent within, well, the punditocracy. This describes, say, Indiana Senator and former Governor Evan Bayh. It's not that Bayh, a 44-year-old New Democrat, would put his resolutely Republican home state into play. "He's no particular help in the Midwest at all," says an Illinois union leader. But, argues one Beltway consultant, "the press will interpret Bayh to the country as a mainstream candidate who thinks like they do, not some dangerous liberal." (Then again, Bayh may resemble Gore in ways that the Gore campaign isn't totally eager to showcase, since, like the Gore of 1992, he's a senator son of a senator. This issue would be neutralized, of course, should Bush choose Neil Reagan or Tricia Nixon Cox as his running mate.)
More generally, the importance of regional or statewide appeal isn't what it used to be. "The country has become incrementally more homogenous with each passing election cycle," says Guy Molyneux, vice president of Peter Hart Research, "and regional and state identity has become weaker each time. I think the prospects that a vice presidential candidate can deliver a state, while not impossible, grow weaker each time. We saw what Lloyd Bentsen could do in Texas."
A bad vice presidential choice, of course, a Tom Eagleton or a Dan Quayle, can throw a campaign off-message (though there have been weeks this spring when the Gore campaign had no discernible message off of which it could be thrown). The atrophy of our political culture has, in a sense, heightened that peril. "In a time of weakened party loyalties and lack of interest in politics," says Molyneux, "Gore and Bush have a very limited window [in which] to get the country to pay attention. The vice presidential choice is one of those moments, along with the convention speeches and the debates. It gives the public a look into the character and ideology of these two guys, and it opens up the possibility of a really disastrous mistake."
Herewith, then, a quick look at what the various names being batted about tell us about the character, ideology, and strategic sensibility of the current veep.
Steady-As-You-Go Bob. No prospective running mate would better underscore the emerging message of the Gore campaign--that W.'s tax cuts put our prosperity at risk and that Gore's plan to retire the debt will prolong it--than former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Like Gore, Rubin is a kind of New Age Andrew Mellon, an apostle of means-tested social spending who never doffs his green eyeshade. No other candidate in either party would so personify the policies that contributed to the current prosperity. Mainstream media would swoon: No candidate for national office has boasted these kinds of expert, real-world, nonpolitical credentials since--actually, since Herbert Hoover. Besides, who better to develop the investment plans that Gore proposes to have the government subsidize than Rubin? (Unless, of course, it's Abby Joseph Cohen: an out-of-the-box selection you read here first.)
Downsides: First, Rubin's emphasis on global financial liberalization brought the global economy to the brink of a Hooveresque collapse, an issue that W.'s not likely to raise, but one that Nader surely will. Second, Rubin is an architect of trade policies that are likely to hurt Gore in the industrial Midwest. Third, Rubin seems to view America through a Manhattan prism, as a nation made up of a prosperous us and a beleaguered, largely nonwhite them. Americans at the median income level (a little over $40,000 a year for a family of four) are lumped, as often as not, under the prosperous us, handing Republicans all the wedge they need to keep the Democrats from office. Fourth, Rubin has no experience as a candidate or any apparent desire to become one. Fifth, Rubin--like such other prospective Democratic running mates as senators Dianne Feinstein and Joe Lieberman, and Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell--is Jewish, which, while surely not the electoral poison it once was, still could deter some undeterminable number of electors from voting Democratic. In the mind of the borderline anti-Semite, moreover, Rubin's Jewishness is compounded by his profession, though, as one Republican consultant says, "If the country is ever going to be ready for a Wall Street Jewish banker, this is the year."
Rocky-As-You-Go Bob. Nebraska maverick Bob Kerrey, in full flight to the New School, remains a media darling (see, for example, Joe Klein's Running Mate), the critics' image of themselves as they'd like to be: heroic, incisive, irreverent, right on economics and left on culture. He'd give the Democrats an all Viet vet ticket, and while the majority of voters who care about such things have already had it with Clinton up to here, some smattering of them might want to give Gore a second look. On the other hand, Kerrey may well favor Bush's Social Security dismantling over Gore's Social Security augmentation. He's placed his loathing of Clinton, and secondarily of Gore, on public display, and he might want to bargain interminably over the terms of his coming on the ticket much as he did over his vote for the 1993 budget.
Giving the nod to Massachusetts regular, and Viet vet, John Kerry would oblige the media to explain that he's not Bob Kerrey, putting them in a foul humor. And John Kerry would carry the onus of a Massachusetts liberal while boasting little in his record that would mobilize the party's progressive activists on behalf of the ticket.
Fadeaway Bill. The problem with Bill Bradley isn't that he disappeared after his lackluster primary campaign; it's that he disappeared during it. Still, in the words of one Democratic campaign consultant, "Bradley helps in a state that's very much in play; he's had an ability to appeal to some white guys, and Al Gore is in no position to sneeze at any white guys he can move into his camp." On the downside, Bradley's failure to mount a spirited defense of his own health care proposal doesn't bode well for his ability to defend Gore's proposals on the campaign trail this fall. Worse yet, organizations like the United Auto Workers, whose support Gore needs now more than ever, view Bradley--a zealous free-trader--as even less sympathetic to their members' concerns than the veep. By embracing his primary rival, Gore could actually exacerbate the party's internal rifts. Who needs that?
A Vice of Virtues. Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, like former Senator John Danforth on the Republican side, would be the candidate of moral rearmament. Danforth, a 63-year-old Episcopal priest who stepped down from the Senate in 1994 and took himself out of vice presidential contention in June, would have signaled to voters that George W. had repudiated the last vestiges of his Prince Hal youth and was now open to adult supervision or even to becoming a morally serious fella. Lieberman, who took Clinton to task for the Lewinsky affair earlier and more often than any other Democrat, would signal to voters that Gore truly understands the moral squalor of the Clinton White House. Whether Lieberman understands the moral squalor of the Democrats' corporate indenture, which his very own Democratic Leadership Council has helped inflict upon the party, is not so clear. Politically, Lieberman has triangulated the triangulator, parting company with Clinton and his Democratic colleagues in favor of the Republican position on a range of economic issues, compiling a voting record more conservative than that of nearly every southern Democrat. It's hard to see how he'd measurably help Gore or hurt him, or how well he'd wear. Many in the media and on Capitol Hill protest that his cleanliness squeaks too much.
Danforth withdrew himself from Bush's consideration earlier this month, citing as his concern the arduous security to which vice presidents and their families have to subject themselves. He recalled a visit to his house some years back by then-Secretary of State George Schultz. "There were a couple of Secret Service people standing in our backyard in the dark," Danforth said, "and I remembered that." (A close reading suggests that Danforth actually may not have coveted the position all that much.)
Swing Shift. Among labor leaders and some midwestern Democratic officials, and increasingly on Capitol Hill, the name that comes up most often is Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. "He has superb politics in both senses of the word," says one union political director. "His record is just a little shy of Wellstone's, but nobody thinks of him that way. He takes on Big Tobacco and the insurance industry; he takes the lead on the right to organize and the patients' bill of rights." In one veteran congressman's assessment, Durbin is "plain-speaking and well-spoken and, all the while, reassuring." Problem is, the flip side of nonthreatening is bland, which may not be quite what Gore needs in a running mate. Nor does Durbin quite fit the media's specifications for an ideal candidate: As a former longtime staffer for Paul Simon, who then inherited the boss's House seat when Simon went to the Senate, Durbin is, horror of horrors, a career pol.
The other name that surfaces when Democrats contemplate how Gore can come out of the Midwest with enough electoral votes is, surprisingly, Dick Gephardt. The House Democratic leader would bring to the race a level of stature, experience, and appeal to certain swing voters that no other candidate could match. Tom Friedman and Company would persistently label Gephardt's support for a global mixed economy as "protectionist," but that could help Gore as much as it could hurt him.
But why Gephardt--who passed up a campaign for the presidency for a shot at the speakership--would now pass up a possible speakership for a chance to be vice president is hard to fathom. One theory has it that Gephardt's congressional seat could be imperiled in the next reapportionment if the Republicans maintain their hold on the Missouri legislature and take the governor's office this November, but that's a lot of conjecture on which to base the renunciation of a project that Gephardt has worked for years to achieve. Another theory is that Gephardt still wants to be president, and running for veep could be a surer route than becoming House speaker.
The Great Latino Hope. "Right now," says one Democratic pollster, "the Latino vote is appreciable in three major states--California, New York, Texas--but none of these is seriously in play. [The Ds get New York and California, and the Rs get Texas.] By 2008 it may matter in some swing midwestern states." Plus, Bill Richardson, the party's ranking Latino despite his surname, would have to account for the security lapses--real, imagined, or both--at Los Alamos.
Democratic George. Perhaps the most appealing sleeper on the list is George Mitchell, the former, much admired senator from Maine. Compared to the rest of the vice presidential field, Mitchell seems almost overqualified. As senate majority leader, Mitchell was the bane of Papa Bush's existence, derailing legislation that would have cut the capital gains tax and otherwise masterminding battles for the kinds of economic justice causes that still inspire fond, if increasingly dim, memories among Democrats. He was one of a dwindling band of Democratic senators who were both resolutely progressive and legislatively effective. Since leaving the Senate, all he's done besides make money and fall in love is bring peace to Northern Ireland, where the troubles dragged on for most of the past millennium. He has gravitas; you could imagine him being president. If geography matters in electoral strategy, it's true that Mitchell doesn't bring much regionally to the Gore campaign. But Mitchell is more of a national figure than a regional one. One other plus: Mitchell, of Lebanese extraction, does put in play the Lebanese vote, which might otherwise flock to fellow Lebanese-American Ralph Nader.
Just Tall Enough. On the minus side, California Senator Dianne Feinstein would only compound Gore's Buddhist temple troubles, as she would face a slew of questions about the many investments her husband Richard Blum has had in China. Also, as one House member put it, "if Gore is still struggling to win California and the woman's vote in October, it's all over anyway." On the plus side, DiFi puts the spotlight on gun control issues, and, partly because of that, she helps Gore attract women voters, among whom he's surprisingly weak. Perhaps just as important, in the words of one California Democrat, "If you have a woman vice presidential candidate, she's gotta be tall, and Dianne is tall." The stature gap, incidentally, generates a couple of running-mate rules: Presidential candidates should never choose male running mates who are significantly taller than they (see, for example, Humphrey-Muskie; Dukakis-Bentsen) or female running mates who are significantly shorter (see, for example, Mondale-Ferraro).
At the end of the day, it's not clear how much a running mate will help, anyway. The last running mate who put a candidate over the top in a close race was probably Lyndon Johnson in 1960, though Walter Mondale added some needed credibility and party regularity to Jimmy Carter's run in 1976. Gore himself probably helped Clinton marginally in 1992.
By contrast, running mates Lloyd Bentsen, Dan Quayle, Bob Dole, and George Bush the elder made precious little difference. Dan Quayle was an embarrassment to Bush but cost him few votes. Bentsen, about as conservative a running mate as Dukakis could have chosen without alienating his base, proved an able debater against Quayle ("I served with John Kennedy"), but in the end, he didn't do much for the Duke. A weak running mate will hurt Al Gore, but it's doubtful that a strong one will help him, given the available field. The more important challenge is for Gore to develop a coherent case for his own candidacy.