Trump’s vice presidential sweepstakes

Printed from:

“First, do no harm.”

That advice to physicians from the Hippocratic Oath also sums up a key principle in politics when choosing a vice presidential running mate. In recent election history, selecting a vice presidential running mate has become an exercise in protecting the downside. When the maxim to “do no harm” is ignored, the consequences rarely are happy ones.

In the post-World War II era, the choice for vice president can be credited with altering the outcome of an election only one time:  the election of 1960.  At that time, geographic balance was considered vital to electoral success.   Lyndon Johnson preserved most southern states for John F. Kennedy, whose liberal Catholic Massachusetts background led to suspicions about him in the solidly Democratic South. Johnson also secured his home-state of Texas for Kennedy with a razor thin margin that raised doubts about its validity.

But as regional divides and rivalries subsided, geographic balance became less important. When Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis tried to replicate the Boston-Austin strategy by selecting Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate in 1988, the political maneuver fell flat.

And in 1992, when Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton won the presidency, despite ding the unthinkable  — selecting another southerner, Senator Al Gore from Tennessee.  In 2000, George W. Bush made a similar choice — he selected fellow-Texan Dick Cheney, forcing Cheney to scurry back to his previous home-state of Wyoming, lest an all-Texas ticket forfeit home-state electoral votes, and ultimately the presidency or vice presidency in that closely contested election.

No legal or constitutional bar prevents a president and vice president from residing in the same state. But the founders feared the concentration of power, whether regional or monarchical, so in Article Two and in the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution they forbade electors from voting for both a president and vice-president from a single state mandating, “one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state as themselves.” Losing electoral votes for half the ticket proved a significant enough penalty to deter political parties from nominating running mates from one state, even when states were far fewer in number than 50. Up to recent elections, regional balance was routinely considered when putting together a winning ticket.

One might note that Donald Trump has greater concerns than geography when picking a running mate. Consistently trailing in national polls, Trump must put together an effective come-from-behind campaign. Because of his uniquely personality driven effort — his background is business and television, while his name is a boastful international brand — Trump has a far more delicate task than his thoroughly politicized opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s own take-no-prisoners style of political attacks has removed the possibility of teaming with most former GOP presidential rivals. In other political years, losing candidates like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz would fill everyone’s short list. Because of the personal and vituperative nature of this campaign, it is doubtful that either would accept the nod.

Other potential, more traditional, running mates include Iowa Senator Joni Ernst and Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, each of whom offer offer ideal “do no harm” credentials. But this time around, neither would likely warm to the task of defending Trump’s outside-the-box comments, since they have their own political futures to nurture. Nor is either cut out for the “attack dog” role, perhaps explaining why they apparently removed themselves from vice presidential consideration.

Many pundits consider it essential for Trump to choose someone with extensive national security experience, because his own global presence is limited to business, not international relations. This has led to rampant speculation about a military figure, General Mike Flynn, who formerly led the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Although generals were frequently nominated for president during the this nation’s first century, the practice has become rare ever since. General Dwight David Eisenhower, alone, has accomplished the task in living memory. Of course, he was universally admired and could point to such accomplishments as winning World War II — not a bad talking point.

No current military figure comes even remotely close. Flynn, who possesses zero name ID outside the Beltway, has spoken glowingly of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy, but rather ominously is registered as a Democrat. His views on domestic issues were largely a blank slate until a July 10 grilling on ABC’s This Week exposed Flynn expressing poorly articulated liberal-lite positions on social issues.

That’s dangerous territory for Trump. His own views often conflict with traditional Republican ideas, and he hardly can afford to waste time explaining away his running mate’s heresies, as well.

The most recent military figure to serve as vice presidential candidate was Admiral James Stockdale, a Vietnam War POW chosen by Ross Perot for his 1992 third-party ticket. A great hero who endured prison and torture for more than seven years at the hands of the North Vietnamese, Stockdale nevertheless proved an inadequate campaigner, and his debate performance flagged next to seasoned professional politicians Dan Quayle and Al Gore.

Military experience makes one expert at giving and taking orders in the chain of command, not explaining oneself nor defending one’s opinions to the press and to the public. Trump’s spontaneous campaign style would not blend well with the rigidity of military command. He would be well advised to shy away from Flynn or other military professionals as a running mate.

A far more experienced political figure under consideration is Governor Mike Pence of Indiana. He certainly pleases social conservatives. Despite that background, he was caught completely flatfooted by controversy swirling around Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Although he eventually negotiated a compromise, Pence’s apparent confusion about the hot-button bill raises questions about whether he’s too “mid-western nice” to handle the nasty, biased liberals dominating the national media. Plus, Trump has shown an aversion to campaigning on the social issues, making it unlikely he will choose a vice-presidential candidate trapped by one as recently as 2015.

If he’s looking for someone to bring conservatives “home,” a more logical choice beckons. Once an outsider, then an insider, now an outsider again, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich brings instant gravitas to the ticket. Having stood third-in-line for presidential succession as House Speaker, no one could question his preparation.

Following Ronald Reagan, Gingrich is the most important movement conservative politician of the past half-century. It is easily forgotten what a solitary, even outlandish figure Gingrich seemed when he started promising a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, something which had not happened since the early years of the Eisenhower administration. In fact, Gingrich’s rise to House Speaker was a far greater longshot than the Gipper taking the Oval Office or Trump gaining the GOP nomination. Gingrich’s accomplishment will look more remarkable to historians, when memories of his less-than-triumphant departure from office fade. Like many leaders who effect dramatic change, Gingrich proved a more effective outside revolutionary than inside power player.

Veteran movement conservatives would be especially thrilled to see Gingrich on the platform delivering a vice presidential nomination acceptance speech. Surely, if anyone deserves the honor for service to the cause and the GOP, he does. But there are some cautionary signs. He hasn’t actually won an election since 1998. And his 2012 effort for the Republican presidential nomination was erratic, peaking with a memorable debate performance leading to his victory in the South Carolina primary. But not all his public appearances demonstrated equal resourcefulness, and his campaign fizzled thereafter. At 73 years old, he hasn’t crossed verbal swords on a debate stage in four years, at a moment televised debates are projected to determine Trump’s chances of turning the race around.

Trump’s best choice comes neither from the military nor from Washington nor from the conservative movement. That pick will not add geographical balance, nor does he bring pure ideological credentials. He hails from the adjoining state of New Jersey, and he can appear just as blunt, barbed, and brusque as Trump, himself. The best choice for Trump has been on his shortlist from the beginning. Among a group of imperfect potential running mates, Chris Christie tops the list as the most opportune and practical choice..

First, Christie stands in peak shape as a politician in spite of his 2016 presidential primary failures. He is capable of moving audiences, thinking on his feet, and debating the best of them. He has mastered politics, both retail and wholesale, pitching to audiences large and small. Although his popularity in liberal New Jersey has waned, he survived “Bridgegate” and the accompanying media onslaught that would have steamrolled a lesser politician. Like Trump, he has an appealing family. Plus, Christie is a Catholic at a time the Catholic vote frequently predicts the winning presidential ticket.

Also like Trump, Christie presents an oversized personality.  He has proven himself an able defender of Trump, after his own presidential campaign ended and he was sent to the locker room. Where establishment insiders would demur and neophytes would get that “deer-in-the headlights” gaze, Christie slashes, burns, and never backs down. After years in rough-and-tumble New Jersey, he can handle whatever the national media throws at him. Christie would multiply Trump’s own brash brand, another positive for such a personality driven campaign.

Trump needs an unusually skilled and pugnacious defender, an apologist who can make his case more coherently than Trump himself. Christie is that running mate, the prosecutor-politician who will go on the offensive. Most significantly, Christie is the sharpest debater out there today. It was, after all, his debate take-down of Senator Marco Rubio that ended the Florida senator’s surge, rather than anything Trump did. Yet Trump was the real political beneficiary of the New Jersey governor’s skewering from which Rubio never recovered.

Republicans can harbor realistic expectations that Christie will deliver an equally adroit and pungent prosecution of the Democrat vice presidential nominee. No one else in the Republican mix comes close.

But don’t get your hopes up for a showdown with ultra-liberal Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Although it would be the most anticipated vice presidential debate in history, there’s no chance of that match-up. Hillary Clinton will steer clear of selecting a running mate with far greater charisma and popularity among the Democrat faithful than she.

Unlike Clinton, Trump does not suffer such personal and political insecurities. He’ll have no fear of being overshadowed by his most advantageous vice presidential choice, Chris Christie.

Joseph Tortelli

Joseph Tortelli

Joseph Tortelli is a freelancer writer. Read his past columns here.