With word leaking last week about Barack Obama’s choice of a vetter and a closely-scrutinized weekend visit to John McCain’s ranch by three potential running mates, the veepstakes and all its breathless speculation is front and center.
Never mind that the select few who know the most about an uber-secretive process usually say the least.
"There is a political-industrial complex around covering the election that is exponentially bigger, hungrier and with more mouths to feed this cycle,” observes Democratic strategist Michael Feldman, a veteran of Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, noting the growth of political coverage on cable news and the Internet.
So for the next few months untold barrels of ink, TV hours and Internet bandwidth will be filled with in-depth analysis that revolves around a central question: “So, whaddya think?”
“The VP story is a little bit like sex,” observes Tucker Carlson, the writer and NBC political analyst who falls into the skeptic column. “When it’s happening you’re totally focused on it, it’s all you want. Then, the second it’s over you can barely remember why it seemed so important.”
“It happens, there are fireworks for 30 seconds, ‘[AP's Ron] Fournier’s got it – it’s JACK KEMP!’” he jokes. “Then, you say, ‘hey, wait a second.’”
It’s a quadrennial political ritual, a protracted and obsessive mulling of who will be tapped for the number two slot on the presidential ticket. Still, for all the reasons to dismiss the custom, the vagaries of the 2008 election offer some reason to believe the inordinate attention may actually be merited this year.
The likely party nominees, John McCain and Barack Obama, are distinctive candidates saddled with unique vulnerabilities. With volatile political dynamics at work at the end of the Bush presidency, heightened attention on surrogates and the strong pull of history affecting the contest, the veepstakes could shape up as something much more than a temporary summer diversion before the conventions.
William Kristol, Dan Quayle’s former chief of staff, makes the case for why this time is different.
“We haven’t had a nominee as old as McCain and we haven’t had a nominee as inexperienced as Obama,” notes Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard.
The vice presidential selections made by McCain and Obama will also be watched closely because it will start to answer questions about each.
Will McCain, who turns 72 in August, choose somebody who will be groomed for succession in either 2012 or 2016? And does the sometimes-maverick attempt to mirror Bill Clinton’s 1992 gambit of picking a candidate who underlines his attributes, rather than choosing a more conventional conservative to balance the ticket?
“He’s got a delicate task,” says Kristol of McCain. “He doesn’t want a v.p. pick that drags him down to the generic [Republican polling] number. On the other hand, he can’t have his entire base up in arms.”
For Obama, his selection will fill in the blanks as to what sort of campaign he’d like to pursue. Is it the Dukakis model, reaching for a gray eminence who will be more solid than spectacular? And which of his themes – change or post-partisanship – will matter more in an Obama White House? His number two man (or woman) could offer valuable clues about the thinking of a politician who is still barely known to many American voters.
“Voters are very anxious to find out more about Obama,” says Democratic strategist and former Kerry adviser Tad Devine. “His choice will offer great insight.”
“Because Sen. Obama is such a fresh face, and so newto the scene, for those reasons people will be looking to see who will be serving with him,” adds another top Democrat.
Moreover, after Vice-President Dick Cheney’s hands-on role in the Bush White House, more attention than ever will be paid to the choice—and few ego-driven politicians will be willing to settle for a role attending funerals of foreign leaders and banishment to the backwater of the Old Executive Office Building.
“What’s the guy going to say now— I want to go back to when it was as worthless as ‘a warm bucket of spit?’” quips Mary Matalin, a former top Cheney aide paying homage to the PG-version of John Nance Garner’s famous formulation.
What most all political observers and operatives agree on now is that the traditional notion of what makes the veep pick important has become antiquated.
“Lyndon Johnson was the last guy who delivered anything meaningful to his nominee,” observes Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman who has advised Bush, McCain and Mitt Romney.
LBJ was tapped to help bring Texas’s trove of electoral votes into the Democratic column for a young senator from Massachusetts, but few have brought a state that was otherwise in question since.
John Edwards didn’t get John Kerry close in North Carolina.
Jack Kemp certainly wasn’t picked to deliver New York.
And Cheney even has a stock joke about his being tapped for Wyoming’s measly three electoral votes.
Regional balance, it seems, no longer matters in a rapidly homogenizing country. Vice-presidents are increasingly picked for reasons other than their ability to deliver their home state or region–as was the case with Edwards, Kemp and Cheney.
“Now the reason to watch the process is not to find the candidate who delivers the Holy Grail to the White House, but because it gives you key insights into the individual decision-making process of the candidate,” says Weber.
Beyond offering a window into how a potential president will go about making consequential, pressure-packed decisions, this cycle’s selection provides another opportunity: the chance to send a symbolic message to the electorate.
Devine argues that McCain needs a pick that will reinforce a split with Bush, recounting with familiarity a similar move in the not-too-distant past.
“When Gore picked Lieberman it said, ‘Listen, this is not going to be a third Clinton administration,’” Devine, a top consultant on the former vice-president’s campaign, says. “There was great symbolic benefit in picking somebody who had stood up and said what Clinton did was wrong,” he adds, recalling Lieberman’s Senate floor scolding of President Clinton after his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
“What the selection of Lieberman did was it shook things up and surprised people,” says another former Gore adviser, recalling their poll bounce. “It got people to take a hard look and opened up a window for him to communicate his message.”
The rise of new media has also served to elevate the importance of the vice-presidential candidate. Because of the sheer volume of news sources, now there’s simply more attention on all aspects of the campaign.
If anything is clear from the contest to date, it is that surrogates and fill-ins– whether it’s Jeremiah Wright, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush –now face a much brighter and harsher media glare.
And Matalin notes that there is no bigger surrogate than the running mate.
“They can’t just send them off to ‘B’ markets,” says Matalin, a veteran of both Bush White Houses. “If the attention on the spouses is any indication, the attention to every utterance of the vice-presidential nominee makes him or her a key player.”
The vice-president is also a key player for years to come, with the prospet of defining what the Democratic and Republican parties will look like for the next generation. Despite their best efforts, neither President Clinton nor President Bush were able to successfully remake their parties to attain political and governing dominance, with each presiding over the humbling diminishment of their party’s congressional majorities.
It is no coincidence that both Obama and McCain have distanced themselves from their own party’s resident political colossus.
Obama has, much to Bill Clinton’s annoyance, campaigned openly against what he called in his much-ballyhooed Jefferson-Jackson speech in Iowa last November the politics of “triangulating and poll-driven positions.”
Since winning the nomination, McCain has repeatedly made plain that he wants to be the president of all Americans, even going to places with few GOP voters to make the point that he won’t pursue the divisive 50 percent-plus-one tactics of the incumbent.
“We’ve not had a post-Reagan definition and they’ve not had a post-FDR definition,” noted Matalin.