By former Assemblyman Steven Sanders
Some might remember the great 1980’s party game that for a time swept the nation called “Trivial Pursuit.” It matched players’ wits against little known facts from various areas of history. Example: Name the original four Beatles. Or, who was the first man in space? You get the idea. But better yet, who were the last two New Yorkers to be on the Republican Party national ticket? See how well you do (answers below). This is a particularly interesting trivia question since the 2016 presumptive Republican nominee for president was born and still lives in New York.
But this year’s “party game” of selecting a vice presidential running mate for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has much more consequence than Trivial Pursuit because it is about the future and not the past. And it is very much about who can help each nominee of their party win enough electoral votes in their pursuit to become president of the United States. These decisions will be made within the next few weeks as each party prepares for their National Conventions over the summer.
The first question is what are the “legal” qualifications needed to become vice president? You hope that the vice presidential candidate will have the stature and experience to become president if for whatever reason the incumbent president leaves office. That circumstance has actually occurred on eight occasions. But the answer is that there are three legal criteria. First, you need to be a natural born citizen of the United States. Then you need to be at least 35 (your age, not your IQ). And finally, you may not reside in the same state as the presidential nominee. That’s pretty much it. But the political considerations are much more involved.
The primary rule of thumb, like a doctor’s oath, is first to do no harm. A candidate for vice president must not detract from the presidential nominee in any way. After the fact, John McCain may have had buyer’s remorse having picked little known Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in 2008. Her glittering presence was a constant source of distraction from Senator McCain. In many ways, she upstaged him with her unscripted homilies about, well, just about everything. She attracted more media attention for her provocative remarks than McCain ever expected. In the end, she proved to be a minus, not a plus. And John McCain went down to defeat at the hands of novice Senator Barack Obama. In contrast, Obama chose the venerable Senator Joe Biden who in spite of his occasional gaffes along the way gave Mr. Obama the added credibility of a tried and tested politician who would not hog the spotlight but could competently assume the presidency.
Way back in 1960, underdog John F. Kennedy chose as his running mate the wily Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson from Texas who helped Kennedy carry not only his home state but also several other critically important southern states in a historically close election. “All the way with JFK and LBJ” proved to be a winning slogan and a cunningly smart choice. This in spite of the fact that the two men cared very little for one and other. But it was a political marriage made in heaven. In 1968, Republican candidate Richard Nixon from California picked Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew to balance the ticket geographically, and to add a tough-talking conservative to appeal to culturally angry white voters. It worked.
Four years later, South Dakota Democrat Senator George McGovern first chose Senator Tom Eagleton of Missouri to be his running mate… until it was discovered that Mr. Eagleton had undergone psychiatric treatment as a younger man. He was quickly jettisoned from the ticket, but not before the damage to Mr. McGovern was done. The Democrats went down to a crushing defeat in November.
There was a time that the mantra for vice presidential candidates was to be seen and not heard, but times have changed. The nominee of the party wants her or his running mate to be a person who will add some tangible attribute to the pursuit of the White House. Perhaps geographically or ideologically or culturally. With the country so politically polarized these days, winning one or two extra states can make all the difference in the world. Just ask Al Gore.
So as the bombastic primary season has already faded from view, the slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again” will be far less important to Mr. Trump than the words “I choose (fill in the blank) as my vice president.” And for Hillary Clinton much the same will be true. This party game has now begun and the results may well determine the direction of American history for generations to come.
Answers: McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and drummer, Pete Best; Yuri Gagarin from the Soviet Union; Jack Kemp, congressman and 1996 candidate for vice president; Bill Miller, congressman and 1964 candidate for vice president.