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Reagan's VP Advice Still Good Today

July 3, 2008

The Presidential campaign is moving into the next phase as the candidates continue to spar with each other over a variety of issues. Sometimes it is the candidates themselves taking a jab at their opponent while at other times their surrogates take the swings.

One of Obama’s surrogates recently misfired. Retired Army General Wesley Clark put forth a silly argument, saying that John McCain’s war-time military record is not an adequate basis to elect him Commander-in-Chief. Unfortunately, Obama did not directly disavow the comment or Clark himself as he should have – so once again this incident adds to the notion that Obama is anything but a different kind of politician.

Clark has often been mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate for Obama, particularly because of his military experience. But apparently West Point isn’t very good at teaching politics – and Clark isn't very "artful" (as Obama himself concedes) and he has now talked himself right out of being Obama’s choice – if he ever was in the running in the first place.

The number two spot will create the real drama between now and the national party conventions as both candidates mull over an impressive list of possibilities. Everyone likes to get involved in the guessing game – and everyone has a favorite candidate. But history teaches us that vice presidential selections are usually very personal to the nominee. While both candidates have sophisticated teams in place to vet prospective candidates for the second spot, in the end it is always a decision the nominee decides alone.

Keep in mind that today’s process is a far cry from the way past nominees made their selections. There was very little vetting in the 1960s and ‘70s. The choice usually came down to which person could deliver a given state or satisfy a particular faction of the party. While those considerations remain important today, they were of primary importance in years past.

Richard Nixon admitted that he had only met Maryland Governor Spiro T. Agnew on a few occasions before he selected him as his running mate in 1968. But Nixon liked the way Agnew carried himself and felt he looked like Presidential material. Nixon was also impressed with Agnew’s nominating speech at the convention and liked the idea of his coming from a state bordering the south. Nixon also didn’t want someone with foreign policy credentials – that was always to be his own bailiwick.

Jimmy Carter might have set the standard in picking a running mate which others later followed, and probably implemented something close to today’s vetting system. Carter consulted with dozens of party leaders and fully researched the backgrounds and policy positions of potential candidates. In the end he was impressed with Walter Mondale’s preparation in the selection process and found himself to be both personally and politically compatible with Mondale.

Probably the most bizarre vice presidential selection process involved the so-called "dream team"of Ronald Reagan and former President Jerry Ford at the 1980 Republican convention in Detroit. The nation stood aghast for hours during prime time television while rumors swirled around the possibility of a Reagan-Ford ticket. But when these rumors turned into grossly unconventional dealings – including the division of Presidential powers and duties between the two men - Reagan finely took control of the situation and nixed the idea. 

Don’t look for any such political intrigue during the 2008 Republican or Democratic conventions. McCain and Obama will do their best to pick someone unquestionably capable of being President – but also someone who will help them politically in a particular group of states or with certain voting blocks. And, of course, they will pick candidates with whom they feel comfortable.

Among all the names being talked about on both sides, the strongest candidates for McCain and Obama are their former challengers – former Massachusetts Governor George Romney and New York Senator Hilliary Clinton.

I remember what Ronald Reagan said to George Bush at the 1980 Republican convention when he offered him the number two spot. "George, it seems to me that the fellow who came the closest and got the next most votes for president ought to be the logical choice for vice president. Will you take it?"

The 2008 winning candidate just might be the one who takes Ronald Reagan’s advice.