Pickings slim for presidential running mates

January 06, 2000|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Given the homogenization of America, and especially of its political class, there is not apt to be anything again remotely like the Democratic tickets of 1932 and 1936. As speculating about vice presidential nominations begins, remember when the top of the Democratic ticket, Franklin Roosevelt, came from the top of American society -- the Hudson Valley squirearchy -- and his running mate came from America's frontier.

John Nance ("Cactus Jack") Garner, who died in 1967 at age 98, was, as Alistair Cooke writes in his new book ("Memories of the Great & the Good"), the last public man linking "America of the Civil War and America of the nuclear age." Son of a Confederate cavalry trooper, he was born in a one-room cabin in Texas' Red River Valley, in 1868, before the Apache raids had ended. As a child he knew a woman who had been scalped. A judge at 25, congressman at 34, at the end of FDR's second term Garner went home, vowing never to cross the Potomac again. Never did.

Back then, politics had more certainties than it now has, two of which were that the South would vote Democratic and no Southerner could be elected president. Frequently the South's consolation was a Democratic vice presidential candidate. (Harry Truman's running mate came from a border state, Kentucky; Adlai Stevenson's two came from Alabama and Tennessee; John Kennedy's from Texas.)

A Dole endorsement

Nowadays politics is more fluid, and presidential nominees of both parties are tempted to think imaginatively about running mates, as with Elizabeth Dole. Although her droll husband, with his penchant for making a difficult situation excruciating, semi-endorsed John McCain's candidacy while she was still a candidate, she has endorsed Texas Gov. George W. Bush, enkindling talk about her as Mr. Bush's running mate.

Would she cure the Republicans' "gender gap"? That gap needs defining.

In 1992 President George Bush ran better among married women (40 percent) than among men generally (38 percent). In 1996 Bob Dole did almost as well among married women (43 percent) as among all men (44 percent). The striking Bush and Dole weaknesses were among unmarried women (31 and 28 percent, respectively). But this is less a measure of gender difference than class difference: Unmarried women have lower average incomes and higher insecurities than married women. Is Mrs. Dole an answer to essentially class anxieties? Picking a running mate is the first thing a presidential nominee does with much of the country paying attention. (A poll conducted Oct. 25-Nov. 7 for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that 59 percent of the electorate does not know that Bill Bradley ever played basketball, 76 percent does not know that John McCain is a senator, 85 percent does not know that Mr. Bradley and Vice President Al Gore were senators.) The presidential candidate wants his vice presidential choice to have two immediate, summertime consequences, one autumn consequence (actually, nonconsequence) and one or two possible Election Day consequences.

He wants voters immediately to say, "That vice presidential nominee is presidential." The second desired summertime consequence is for the choice to change adventitiously the public's perception of the presidential nominee.

During the autumn he wants his running mate to do no harm -- to make no mistakes. On Election Day he wants his running mate to cause a modest shift in an important and closely contested state or, more ambitiously, to cause a consequential portion of a particular group to move his way nationally, perhaps tilting several states.

Mrs. Dole's credentials might satisfy the summertime criteria. Her disciplined campaigning would satisfy the autumn criterion. However, she is only loosely associated with a state (North Carolina). And regarding the more ambitious of the two Election Day objectives, it is hard to find precedent for a "running mate effect" that transcends the running mate's state.

The Cheney factor

Because of doubts about Mr. Bush's intellectual weight and steadiness, if he is nominated his choice of running mate should given him a gravitas infusion. It might be Dick Cheney -- anti-abortion and well-seasoned, he has been a congressman and White House chief of staff, and was secretary of defense during the gulf war.

Or, to tilt a state, perhaps Michigan's anti-abortion Gov. John Engler. Or, if Mr. Bush thinks pro-choice dissent would be mild (not likely) and perhaps beneficial (even less likely--right-to-life people will provide much of whatever passion there is behind a Bush candidacy), Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge -- decorated Vietnam veteran, strong in suburbs, Catholic but moderately pro-choice.

Such choices might seem unimaginative. But in presidential campaigns, imagination may be overrated.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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