At a surprisingly raucous Easter party I attended on Sunday, a friend said that one of the best political decisions he ever witnessed was Bill Clinton choosing Al Gore as his running mate back in 1992. The conventional approach to picking one’s vice president is to try to diversify the ticket. You pick someone who can win a state you wouldn’t otherwise win. Or you pick someone who has the foreign policy experience you lack. At the very least you get some regional diversity or ideological balance.
At the time Clinton was running, he was a prominent “Third Way” New Democrat. This was a coalition of moderate Democrats who were worried that the Democratic Party was getting too radical and not meeting the needs of working class Americans. Many laughed at Clinton’s chances to win the nomination, much less the general election. But thanks in part to the peculiarities of the campaign year, including Ross Perot, Clinton won. And he won his nomination battle and the general by emphasizing how he differed from other candidates. Picking Gore was a way to double down on his brand and emphasize what made him different. They were two southerners of similar political ideology and experience. Strategists of all stripes agree that it was a brilliant choice.
Skip to 2016, where New York businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump continues his quest to win the Republican nomination for president. He maintains his solid front-runner status but has yet to secure a majority of Republican primary voters in any state he’s campaigned. He very well might fail to get the necessary number of delegates to avoid a fight for the nomination at the convention later this year.
But let’s just imagine that he does secure the Republican nomination. Who would he pick as his running mate? Here are five ideas of people or approaches he might consider and what those choices would get him. Some of these would strengthen him in areas of vulnerability. Others are Clintonian double-down approaches. They are in no particular order.
1) Newt Gingrich
The former Speaker of the House hasn’t endorsed Trump, but a scan of his Twitter feed would convince you he’s a big fan:
There’s also this interview where Gingrich gushes over Trump. He might be one of the few actual conservatives willing to assist Trump by serving as vice president. And while Trump will have no problem changing his new positions back to reach non-Republican voters in a general election, it is precisely that inconstancy to conservative principles that would give him serious trouble getting conservative voters to rally behind him.
Like so many Republican candidates before him, Trump would need to pick someone who would convince conservatives to support him. Naming Gingrich as his vice president and saying he’d function more as a chief of staff, could help him a great deal. Gingrich, who is obscenely well read, actually knows how to win sweeping elections, work with Congress, and craft policy — some of the many things Trump has zero experience in. Gingrich was the architect of the GOP takeover of Congress and enacted welfare reform and tax cuts. Both share a true love for populism and a disdain for media control of political debate. Trump needs to keep his brand of “outsider” but is in desperate need of someone who is the ultimate insider. Gingrich, who spent 20 years in Congress and previously ran for president in a pre-Trumpian campaign, knows the ropes without hurting his credibility.
2) Pick Nobody!
Trump doesn’t have to pick a running mate, does he? Presidential candidates didn’t use to pick running mates. With the rise of parties, parties began picking them. Since Ronald Reagan named his running mate prior to the convention in 1976 — a move that backfired — candidates have been given wide leeway to pick their own running mate. Then they have the convention ratify him or her. But Trump could tell the convention to pick his running mate or he could ask the convention to hold off so that he could simply name someone at a later date. He could say it doesn’t really matter who it is since it’s an “ugly” job for “losers.” Or he could pick someone who — contrary to the “Tyler Precedent” — is eligible for the office but not interested in holding it. Trump and his vice president could pledge that if Trump dies in office, the vice president would also step down to clear the path for Paul Ryan to be president. In a Trump presidency, the chief of staff would be so much more important than the vice president.
Trump is a completely different candidate whose brand is that he is willing to shake things up. While the vice presidency used to be an office that had at least a little prestige, the 12th Amendment pretty much put the kibbosh on anything truly interesting coming out of an Electoral College vote. Why not shake up the whole idea of a running mate?
3) John Kasich
To go to the opposite end of the spectrum, here’s a super boring and completely conventional choice. Ohio Gov. John Kasich hasn’t really been running for president so much as vice president, hasn’t he? And his offer isn’t a bad one: he can get Ohio, which has a significant block of delegates to the Electoral College, to vote Republican.
Former candidates Chris Christie and Ben Carson are also clearly vying to be picked as vice president, but they don’t make nearly as good as an offer. Christie isn’t even liked in his home state of New Jersey and Ben Carson has no state he can bring to the table. Kasich is kind of smug and sanctimonious but next to Trump he would seem downright friendly. He’s held his fire against Trump in all cases except that one time Trump declined to speak against China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown. That deference to Trump over other candidates might help him in the veep race.
4) Jim Webb
Some days I have high standards for candidates. Other days I simply hope that a given politician would physically take up arms and defend the country if, for example, the ChiComs invaded the beaches of Oregon. In the old days, most candidates would pass this test. This year? Not so sure.
One of my favorite moments of the Democratic primary season was when CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked the candidates which enemy they were most proud of. Hillary Clinton gave a characteristically terrible answer of “Republicans” (because declaring half the country your enemy is a good way to showcase your political skills). Former Sen. Jim Webb said it was the enemy soldier who tried to kill him whom he killed instead, for which Webb earned the Navy Cross. Webb is not well liked in Washington, which is a feature and not a bug this year, and a decent author. Yes, he’s a Democrat, but so is Trump, essentially. In fact, Webb might still be more conservative than Trump. This would not be a huge barrier.
5) Mike Rowe
One of the best things about Trump’s campaign has been how he has understood that his cachet as a reality TV star is far more important than, you know, knowing things. This shocking transcript of his meeting with the Washington Post shows a man who knows almost nothing — or nothing correct, at least — about the office of the presidency and its burdens. But he doesn’t care, because Trump knows that what really matters in the United States is celebrity status. In some ways, Mike Rowe would be the ultimate “Al Gore”-style pick. If Trump is a reality television star who is a populist straight-talker and outsider, so is Rowe.
If working class voters already connect with Trump, what would happen if you give them the guy who’s known for hosting “Dirty Jobs,” a show that praises hard manual labor and working under difficult conditions. Give them the guy who runs a non-profit in support of vocational trades and training. Give them a famous man who has been speaking up for them longer than Trump has. It’s kind of crazy, but so is everything else this year.