criticism, consternation and cacophony surrounding
John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his
vice-presidential candidate highlights a
fundamental truism of American politics, namely,
that while a veep pick only marginally aids the
presidential nominee in winning the support of
independent voters, it can significantly enhance
his credibility and solidify the party base.
the past half-century, dating back to 1952,
presidential candidates with substantial stature
have chosen nonentities for veep: Dwight
Eisenhower picked Richard Nixon in 1952, Nixon
picked Spiro Agnew in 1968, George Bush picked Dan
Quayle in 1988, and McCain picked Palin in 2008.
At the time of their nominations, Eisenhower,
Nixon, Bush and McCain were deemed to have the
stature to be president, and their
vice-presidential pick was deemed inconsequential.
candidates lacking stature have chosen those with
greater credentials as their running mate: George
W. Bush picked Dick Cheney in 2000, and Barack
Obama picked Joe Biden in 2008.
vice-presidential selection fulfills one or more
of five key criteria and is designed to placate,
compensate, aggregate, ameliorate, actualize or
energize key constituencies of the party. Here's
In 1980 Ronald Reagan placated Republican
moderates by choosing George Bush, the runner-up
for the nomination, as vice president. With a
united party, Reagan obliterated President Jimmy
Carter. In 1976 Gerald Ford tried to placate
disgruntled conservatives by asking Reagan to be
his running mate. Reagan wisely declined. Ford
then picked Bob Dole, hoping the acerbic Kansas
conservative would placate Reaganites. Dole
didn't, and Ford narrowly lost.
1952 Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson had a
liberal reputation and a reformer image. In a
party then dominated by southerners, he was
anathema. After winning the nomination, he picked
John Sparkman of Alabama -- an economic liberal
and a racial segregationist -- for vice president.
Stevenson won most of the habitually Democratic
Deep South but lost Texas, Virginia, Florida and
Tennessee to Eisenhower.
1976 Carter, the Georgia governor running as an
"outsider," placated the Washington
Democratic establishment by picking Minnesota
Senator Walter Mondale. Likewise, in 1988 Mike
Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor running as a
"reformer," placated nervous Washington
Democrats by picking veteran Texas Senator Lloyd
1964 President Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded the
assassinated John Kennedy, was under enormous
pressure to name Bobby Kennedy as his vice
president, so as to both grasp the Kennedy mantle
and to placate Democratic liberals. But since the
Republicans had nominated a sure loser, Barry
Goldwater, Johnson decided that he didn't need a
Kennedy on his ticket or want Bobby to remain as
the attorney general in his administration. Had a
Johnson-Kennedy ticket triumphed, pundits and
politicians would have credited Kennedy for the
instead chose Hubert Humphrey, a liberal Minnesota
senator, which satisfied the Democratic left, and
he went on to trounce Goldwater.
Any presidential nominee wants to overcome any
ideological or chronological shortcomings.
older candidate wants a younger running mate -
such as Eisenhower-Nixon (1952 and 1956),
Reagan-Bush (1980 and 1984), Dole-Kemp (1996) and
McCain-Palin (2008). A younger candidate wants an
older running mate - such as Kennedy-Johnson
(1960), Dukakis-Bentsen (1988), Bush-Cheney (2000
and 2004) and Obama-Biden (2008). That helps
neutralize the experience issue.
the Democrats, a liberal presidential candidate
seeks a somewhat conservative running mate, as
Dukakis did in 1988 and Obama did in 2008;
conversely a more moderate candidate, such as
Carter in 1976, seeks a liberal partner.
Ideological balance is important.
Up until 1960 a key criterion for picking a
vice-presidential nominee was his ability to carry
his state, in order to win a close election.
That's why William McKinley picked Teddy Roosevelt
of New York in 1900, why Tom Dewey picked Earl
Warren of California in 1948, and why Kennedy
picked Johnson of Texas in 1960. Geography is now
irrelevant, having been superseded by
constituencies based on gender or race.
one time, when party bosses dictated the outcome
of national conventions, the veep selection was
occasionally traded for votes. That occurred
regularly in the 1800s, and it was how Franklin
Roosevelt won in 1932, when he made John Garner
the vice-presidential nominee in exchange for
support of the Texas delegation.
that situation could have arisen at the 2008
Democratic convention, had Obama and Hillary
Clinton been deadlocked, with neither having a
majority. Then one could have offered an
opponent's supporter the number two spot in
exchange for votes, or they would have had to
agree to an Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket.
But, had Obama's campaign collapsed, he would not
have been offered the vice-presidential spot.
Occasionally a nominee picks a vice president
because he wants him to be his successor. That
wasn't the case with Eisenhower and Nixon, Kennedy
and Johnson, or Bush and Cheney. It definitely was
the case with Johnson and Humphrey (1964), and it
probably was a consideration in Humphrey's choice
of Ed Muskie (1968), Carter's choice of Mondale
(1976), Reagan's choice of Bush (1980) and Bill
Clinton's choice of Al Gore (1992).
In some cases, the vice-presidential selection is
a political minefield, with the ultimate choice
antagonizing many and pleasing few. That was
Nixon's quandary in 1968: choosing Nelson
Rockefeller or Chuck Percy would infuriate the
conservatives, and choosing Reagan would appall
the liberals. So he picked the nondescript Agnew,
who enraged nobody.
as vice president in 1960, had a similar dilemma.
Conservatives wanted Goldwater and liberals wanted
Rockefeller for the second spot. So Nixon opted
for a party elder statesman, United Nations
Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge -- a horrendous
choice. While Johnson delivered Texas -- and the
election -- to Kennedy, Lodge was worthless to
elder Bush faced a similar situation in 1988.
Hard-core Reaganites did not view him as the
president's true successor: Dole, Kemp, Pete
DuPont and Alexander Haig sought the nomination,
and Reagan's reported choice was Paul Laxalt of
Nevada. But Bush won the primaries, and he
instinctively understood that his presidency could
not be Reagan's so-called "third term."
He had to pick a running mate acceptable to the
Reaganites, but not a Reaganite. So he chose the
obscure Quayle, a conservative Indiana senator who
was disliked by nobody.
A nominee with fervent appeal to their respective
party's ideological bases cannot win the
presidency -- witness Goldwater in 1964 and
Democrat George McGovern in 1972 -- but a more
moderate or mundane nominee needs a running made
with some notoriety and unique appeal to his
party's base. That's why the bland Mondale chose a
woman, Geraldine Ferraro, in 1984. Ferraro was
chosen to electrify women and liberals, but
Mondale was still crushed by Reagan.
why the elderly Dole picked Jack Kemp in 1996, but
Kemp failed to electrify Republican conservatives,
and Dole lost to Clinton.
that's why McCain picked Palin. She is young (44),
ardently conservative, a hunter and 2nd Amendment
protector, pro-life and a political
"outsider." She makes McCain look like a
moderate, and she energizes the social
conservative base in the Republican Party.
McCain picked a white male, such as Mitt Romney,
Mike Huckabee, Chuck Hagel or Joe Lieberman, the
public and press reaction would have been tepid.
But Palin does for McCain what Ferraro did for
Mondale, namely, give the ticket some verve and
current knock on Palin is that she is
inexperienced. She doesn't have the resume of
Biden, Cheney, Gore, Kemp, Lieberman, Mondale,
Dole, Muskie, Humphrey, Johnson, Lodge or Nixon.
has been governor of Alaska since January of 2007,
and she was the mayor of Wasilla, a suburb of
Anchorage, for 6 years, and a city council member
for 4 years. That gives her just shy of 8 years of
administrative experience and 4 years of
legislative experience. That's more than Agnew,
who was the governor of Maryland for 2 years and a
county executive for 4 years. That's more than
John Edwards (2004), who was a senator for 6
years. That's more than Sargent Shriver (1972),
who was the Peace Corps director and the
ambassador to France.
bottom line: Both 2008 vice-presidential
choices were astute and calculating. The election
outcome will demonstrate which was the shrewdest.