Let’s Talk Vice-Presidents! Steve Fuller’s Guide to the 2016 US Party Conventions

So the 2016 US presidential race will pit Democrat Hillary Clinton against Republican Donald Trump. Who should be their respective running mates for the vice-presidency? To be sure, there’s some grim historical truth to John Garner’s remark that the role wasn’t worth ‘a warm bucket of spit’. (He was FDR’s vice-president for his first two terms, largely to keep Texas on side for the Democrats.) However, some astute politicians have managed to use it at as a basis to get into the Oval Office, and even those who haven’t – notably Al Gore in recent times – have used to the office launch successful post-political careers. To be sure, the current vice-president, Joe Biden, is best understood as having earned the post as a crowning achievement for his distinguished career as a Congressional wrangler, a skill that came in handy during Obama’s turbulent attempts to get legislation passed. It’s unlikely that Biden would have got the post in terms of his presidential potential. However, in 2016 the vice-presidency opens up new possibilities which might entice prospective candidates.

Hillary Clinton needs to appease Bernie Sanders’ large number of supporters, if not the man himself. In fact, it looks like Sanders will not very gracefully concede defeat to Clinton. Moreover, US politics has form in the history of spoilsports which only serve to condemn the winner to ultimate defeat. Think Eugene McCarthy in 1968. (No relation to the Red-baiting Joe McCarthy, but someone whose name you’ll find popping up in some of the music of the time: Gene McCarthy was a very righteously charismatic guy, just like Bernie.) I’m surprised that more people have not made the comparison. Like Hillary Clinton today, the 1968 Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, was a decent, very accomplished politician with a strong civil rights record, etc., but as LBJ’s vice-president he had been implicated in some of the most disastrous decisions made with regard to US involvement in the Vietnam War. Even though Humphrey’s Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, had a lot of negatives of his own, Humphrey couldn’t overcome both his association with the war and McCarthy’s failure to endorse Humphrey strongly. Humphrey’s running mate, Edmund Muskie, was another decent liberal but not the sort of guy who would galvanize the people who voted for McCarthy.

What is the lesson for Hillary?  Pick a VP who Bernie Sanders’ people could not possibly object to and would be a strong campaigner – strong enough to get Bernie’s people to vote. My personal choice is Elizabeth Warren, Senator of Massachusetts, who herself made an early bid for the Democratic nomination. Sanders’ social media campaign has been marked by ‘Bernie Bros’, who are male vocally anti-establishment yet viscerally misogynistic types who one could easily imagine going for Trump if Bernie doesn’t give a strong steer otherwise. Now, assuming that Bernie won’t give a strong steer – other than say ‘Don’t vote Trump’ – then it’s up to Hillary to prevent the dissipation of Sanders’ support. Clinton and Sanders disagree more on what counts as feasible means than on ultimate goals. Warren could represent Sanders’ position in Hillary’s campaign, in which case his supporters would be properly tested on whether they can support two women fronting their common view. And of course, it would be a direct challenge to Trump’s even worse gender politics. Could Trump manoeuvre effectively in that space? More generally, of course, one might ask why America has found it so much easier to accept a non-White (Obama) than a non-male (Hillary Clinton) president?

Now, as for Trump, things take a somewhat more bizarre turn. If I were a Trump advisor and I thought Trump had a good shot of winning the election carrying on as he has during the Republican primaries, then I would recommend a running mate crazier than him, simply as an insurance policy against assassination attempts. To be honest, it’s amazing that so far no one has tried to take down Trump, but were he to become president, the incentive to do so – especially in the land of the Second Amendment – would be still stronger on the part of aggrieved parties. In that case, if the person lined up to replace Trump would be seen as worse, then the assassination threat might be removed. Think Sarah Palin, or maybe even Ted Cruz. On the other hand, if I didn’t know what Trump’s advisors were advising but I were an ambitious Republican politician more reasonable than Trump yet relatively close to Trump’s policy positions, I would lobby to become the vice-presidential candidate, precisely because there would be a good chance that Trump would be taken out by an assassin and I would then become president! New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would fit the bill perfectly. You may call it cynical, but that’s just Realpolitik, which if nothing else I think Christie understands.

What may put all of these speculations by the wayside is that the cast of characters (minus Palin and Cruz) are all from my home region of the US, the Northeast. Such regional concentration is generally not allowed in American politics. In any case, the vice-presidential choices of both candidates in 2016 may do more than the usual work in determining who wins the election and the character of the presidency that follows.


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