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The vice presidency has always been the Rodney Dangerfield of American politics: It don’t get no respect.
John Nance Garner, FDR’s first vice president, famously likened his job to “a bucket of warm piss.” HBO has devoted an entire primetime comedy to the indignity and inconsequentiality of the office. One recent VP is remembered mainly for misspelling the word “potato.”
But now things could get even worse. If this summer’s GOP convention in Cleveland is, in fact, contested — if frontrunner Donald Trump doesn’t clinch the nomination on the first ballot — then it won’t just upend the Republican Party’s presidential selection process. It may also — and this would be unprecedented — transform what is usually a sideshow (the so-called veepstakes) into a circus of its own.
“We’re entering uncharted waters,” says Joel K. Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University who specializes in vice presidential history. “We’ve had late VP decisions in the past. But they happened in a different age. The vice presidency was different. Media was different. Technology was different. Expectations were different. We haven’t seen anything like this in the modern era — and my fear is that it might damage the vice presidency itself.”
So far, this much is clear: The GOP’s 2016 veepstakes is likely to be weirder than anything we’ve seen before.
In a normal presidential-election year — which 2016 is not — the parties tend to coalesce around their nominees long before the conventions. That, in turn, gives each standard-bearer several months to select a running mate. It’s all very polite and predictable. The nominee and his aides conjure up a long list of contenders. They whittle it down to a shortlist, which inevitably leaks. The campaigns vet the candidates; so does the press. Eventually, the nominee settles on a sidekick who satisfies his chosen criteria: electoral strength, ideological balance, personal compatibility, readiness to serve as president, and so forth. The pick is announced, the media salivates, the “rollout” commences. By the time the convention comes around, the drama has pretty much subsided.
It wasn’t always thus. Prior to 1804, the vice president was simply the presidential candidate who finished second — even if he didn’t belong to the same party as the new president. For much of the rest of the 19th century, the VP was selected by party bosses (and not the would-be commander in chief). It wasn’t until 1940 that a presidential nominee (Franklin D. Roosevelt) picked his own running mate (Henry Wallace), and it wasn’t until 1976 that a presidential candidate (Ronald Reagan) unveiled his veep choice (Richard Schweiker) before the convention. Today’s rollout process only became standard practice after 1980.
The 2016 GOP contest is almost certain to upend that tradition. Is it possible that Trump will win the primaries outright and go on to name his running mate before Cleveland? Technically yes — although, after losing Wisconsin, the tinsel-haired mogul now needs to win 64 percent of the remaining delegates to secure the nomination. (Trump’s current tally: 37 percent.) The likelier outcome is that no candidate arrives at the convention with a majority of delegates (for the first time since 1984) and that no candidate manages to cobble together a majority on the first ballot either (for the first time since 1952). All of which means chaos, maneuvering and multiple rounds of presidential balloting — which in turn almost guarantees that the GOP’s 2016 vice-presidential candidate will be chosen in one of five very odd ways.
The first would be the Premature Pick — that is, a VP pick made before the party even chooses its presidential nominee. This is exactly what Reagan did when he selected Schweiker in 1976. The former California governor was neck and neck with incumbent President Gerald Ford at the time, and his hope was that Schweiker, a moderate U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, would soothe fears about his Western conservatism and flip some middle-of-the-road delegates.
If Trump, Cruz or Kasich were to name a running mate prior to the convention, they’d be jumping the gun for similarly self-serving reasons: to curry favor with the delegates who will ultimately decide their fate. To reassure party regulars that he isn’t a loose cannon, Trump could tap a steady Washington hand; Kasich or Cruz could team up with, say, Marco Rubio in an attempt to augment their delegate totals and consolidate the GOP’s vast anti-Trump voting bloc. (Cruz allies have already floated this option). The permutations are endless; the key is that the VP slot would become a tool to win the nomination, not the presidency.
The second, third and fourth scenarios would all unfold at the convention itself. The Unity Ticket, in which the first- and second-place finishers band together for the good of the party, is the least likely of the three. Unlike John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960 or Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush 20 years later, Trump and Cruz are widely seen as general-election liabilities for the GOP; joining forces would only make matters worse. Plus the mudslinging is much more intense in 2016 than it was decades ago. It’s one thing to set aside your qualms about “voodoo economics” for a shot at the vice presidency; it’s another thing to forgive cheap shots about your wife’s appearance for the chance to serve alongside a man you’d previously said you would run over with your car .
A second- and third-place unity ticket, however, might make more sense; if the convention is deadlocked after several rounds of balloting, and if The Donald is losing ground, Cruz and Kasich could merge their delegates in an effort to vanquish Trump once and for all.
Even more likely is the Rushed Running Mate: a new figure who joins the ticket either a) during the balloting process in Cleveland, or b) shortly after the nomination is decided on the floor of the convention hall. Imagine the usual weeks-long rollout procedure, only this time compressed into most hectic and pivotal hours of the entire 2016 GOP contest, when the candidates and their overextended advisers will not have had nearly as much time as earlier campaigns to consider their options and control the unveiling.
It is also possible that a majority of delegates could nominate the party’s 2016 veep candidate by themselves — no matter what the presidential candidates do, say, or want.
We haven’t seen a Convention’s Choice in a long time — since 1956, to be exact. That year, Adlai Stevenson declined to pick a veep, and the delegates selected Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver on his behalf.
But while it sounds crazy, this may actually be the least complicated outcome to imagine in 2016: Somewhere along the line, at least 1,237 GOP delegates decide that, regardless of whether Trump or Cruz winds up winning the party’s presidential nod, they would prefer a more palatable choice — a John Kasich, a Paul Ryan, a Marco Rubio, whomever — to balance out the ticket as VP. And then they vote to make it so.
The delegates would be perfectly within their rights to do this. The official RNC rules for picking a vice-presidential nominee are identical to the rules for picking a presidential nominee: Whoever wins 1,237 delegates at the convention wins the prize. There is no rule that says the delegates have to consider the presidential candidate’s wishes when making their selection.
Even RNC chair Reince Priebus has speculated about the Convention’s Choice scenario. On Sunday, Priebus reminded Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that “the delegates choose the vice president as well.”
“That’s a subject no one’s really talking about, is that [the VP pick] is another vote on the floor,” Priebus continued. “And so while I’m sure obviously the choice of whoever the nominee is going to be important, it’s still up for a vote of the delegates.”
Priebus elaborated the following day in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “Everyone’s unbound,” he said. “There’s no binding. There’s no first- and second- ballot binding. It’s just a free vote.”
“They can do whatever they want,” Hewitt added.
The final VP scenario — the Delayed Decision — sounds like the sanest option. But in 2016, that may make it the least likely of all. Basically, the RNC rules committee would have to revise its bylaws and defer the final veep vote to a later date so that whoever emerges from Cleveland as the presidential nominee can take the time he needs to consider (and vet) his pick.
“In 1972, George McGovern dropped Tom Eagleton from the ticket after it was revealed that Eagleton suffered from depression,” Goldstein explains. “Then McGovern replaced him with Sargent Shriver, and the Democratic Party ratified McGovern’s choice. So a post-convention nomination is at least conceivable — if improbable.”
All of these scenarios are politically risky. A Premature Pick could look presumptuous — the equivalent of Al Gore launching his transition effort before the courts had officially decided the 2000 election. It might also alienate other vice-presidential hopefuls and their fans at the very moment you need all the support you can get, and it would certainly limit your leverage on the convention floor, where the vice presidency may be the only bargaining chip that can push you past the 1,237-delegate mark. In the antagonistic atmosphere of 2016, a unity ticket — especially a Trump-Cruz unity ticket — is unlikely to gel. A Rushed Running Mate could easily backfire (for lack of vetting) or hijack coverage at a time when the focus should be squarely on the candidate. A Convention’s Choice could highlight intraparty division; a Delayed Decision could be messy and confusing.
Yet the bigger risk, according to Goldstein, is to the office itself.
“If Jimmy Carter had not picked Walter Mondale, I don’t think the vice presidency would have developed in the way it did,” Goldstein says. “Mondale really figured out the modern vision for the office. But he was not Carter’s first choice. Not even close. In fact, it wasn’t until Carter interviewed Mondale a week before the convention, and they really hit it off, that Carter’s doubts were satisfied. Sitting down face-to-face, comparing him to other candidates, going around and talking to party leaders from across the spectrum who said, ‘Mondale’s a great guy’ — that had an impact on Carter. Had he just gotten the nomination and suddenly had to make a choice, the choice would have been different. To pick a good modern vice president, you need to have lots of information. You need to have time. And you need to have a deep pool.”
Goldstein worries that all such luxuries will be lost amid the chaos of this year’s GOP presidential contest. Vetting will be “relegated to the backburner” as the campaigns struggle to scrape together 1,237 delegates. The actual decision won’t be made until “late at night, after everyone has been celebrating and carousing, and suddenly someone says, ‘So who should we pick as a running mate?’” And the pool of available veeps may be shallower than ever for several reasons: distaste for Trump, dislike of Cruz, general GOP disunity and the specter of a third-party challenge if the so-called establishment denies Trump the nod.
“There are whole lot of scenarios in which the vice presidency could look like not such a great prize,” Goldstein explains. “If Trump is the nominee, a lot of people are going to say ‘I don’t want to defend him every time he insults somebody. I don’t want to be associated with him.’ If Cruz is the nominee, a lot of people — especially his fellow senators — are going to say ‘I can’t stand him. I don’t want to do this.’” If someone like Paul Ryan comes along, Trump may mount an independent bid, or his voters and Cruz’s voters may stay home. The weaker the candidate is — the worse his odds of winning in November — the smaller his pool of potential VPs becomes. Then you’re not looking at the top-echelon people — you’re looking way down the ladder.”
In that case, a bucket of warm piss might look good in comparison.
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