Fourteen of America’s 42 presidents — fully one-third — first served as vice president. Eight succeeded a president who died in office, one took over for a president who resigned, and five were elected after their predecessor served one or two terms and retired. All this is a roundabout way of saying that who George W. Bush chooses as his running mate could have repercussions long after this year’s campaign is forgotten.
In 1900 William McKinley left the selection of his running mate to his campaign. Mark Hanna reportedly delegated the choosing to others with the understanding that it “would not be Theodore Roosevelt.” But the Republican Party wanted to move TR out of the New York governorship and Roosevelt was put on the ticket despite his whining about how worthless the vice-presidency was. A year later, on September 6, 1901, McKinley was assassinated. Theodore Roosevelt became president and went on to betray the pro-growth, pro-business party that had dominated the nation since the Civil War. He invoked the politics of envy and class hatred, called for imposing an income tax and a death tax, launched a destructive series of anti-trust attacks on his political enemies, vilified businessmen, interjected the federal government into labor disputes, and turned the conservationist movement in America into a drive to nationalize land in the West. His rhetoric and policies de-legitimized the business class and its participation in politics through the Republican Party. Roosevelt was our first peacetime president to promote statism, and his anti-free enterprise demagoguery has poisoned American politics for a century. When McKinley was shot, the federal government was spending three percent of the nation’s income. Today it spends about twenty percent.
Republican leaders were correct to predict Roosevelt would put personal gain over party building. TR won the 1904 election on his own and, without consulting the party, announced he would retire after 1908. Robert Taft became president, but Roosevelt, in a fit of Perot-style selfishness, ran as a third party candidate in 1912, splitting the Republican majority and allowing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win with only 43 percent of the vote. Not only did Wilson drag America into the First World War, but by opposing a negotiated peace he prolonged the war to the point that the Bolsheviks came to power (creating the Soviet Union and the Cold War). He then helped the allies impose a harsh Versailles Treaty on Germany that doomed the Weimar Republic and led to the rise of Hitler and the Second World War.
Choosing the wrong vice president can be expensive.
Right now most Republican strategists aren’t looking too far ahead: They just want to pick a vice president who will help George W. Bush win 270 electoral votes on November 8.
In the past, veep selections have been used to unite the party after a divisive primary: Reagan defeated the Republican establishment and then chose establishmentarian George Bush as his running mate. They’ve also been used to provide regional balance, as in Kennedy’s selection of LBJ; or to woo the women’s vote, as in Walter Mondale’s naming of Geraldine Ferraro.
George Bush could use his VP choice to go after one or more of seven targets: a particular state, women, blacks, Catholics, McCain backers, or, for gravitas, a graybeard or a military leader.
Most pundits are focused on the play for a single state. Conventional wisdom concedes the South’s 160 electoral votes and the Rocky Mountain and Plains states’ 61 to Bush, with California, New York, and much of the Northeast going to Gore. This makes the real electoral battleground the strip of states running from New Jersey (15), Pennsylvania (23), Ohio (21), and Illinois (22), along with Michigan (18) and Missouri (11). If Bush wins California Gore is finished; if Gore wins California, Bush must win three of these six swing states. Which means he might choose his running mate from one of them.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a two-term Roman Catholic, won in 1994 by 200,000 votes and in 1998 by 780,000 votes, the largest margin ever for a Republican governor in the Quaker State. Ridge is a decorated Vietnam veteran, has cut taxes every year, pushed (unsuccessfully) for statewide school choice, and has led the nation in deregulating electric utilities. If Ridge became VP, his lieutenant governor, Republican Mark Schweiker, would succeed him. Ridge’s only liability is his moderate pro-choice stance on abortion, though he has supported and defended his state’s restrictive abortion laws. Some leading conservative Catholics have publicly said that a moderate pro-choice Protestant would be an acceptable VP choice, but they would violently object to a Catholic out of sync with Church teachings.
Should Bush decide to play aggressive and target California’s 54 electoral votes, his most likely VP pick would be brainy conservative stalwart Chris Cox from southern California. Cox is a leader on high tech issues, sound on all conservative issues, and a favorite of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. He’s also a pro-life Catholic.
Targeting Ohio’s 21 votes could recommend one-time presidential candidate John Kasich, who has chaired the House Budget Committee for the last six years. He’s been the lead opponent of congressional over-spending, has a solid social conservative voting record, but he did vote for the Brady bill in 1994. Surprisingly, there’s no other option in Ohio. Sen. George Voinovich, whose two elections as governor, landslide win for senator, and pro-life Catholic background would seemingly make him a favorite, hurt his case by raising taxes as governor and voting with the Democrats against reducing the marriage penalty tax. Gov. Robert Taft IV has shown none of his grandfather’s zeal for opposing statism, and he betrayed Ohio gun owners by breaking his commitment to support concealed-carry legislation, which is now the law in 31 states.
Michigan Gov. John Engler is a Roman Catholic who has won three terms, passed significant tax cuts, cut welfare rolls by two-thirds, and gained control of both houses for Republicans. His liabilities are his failure to carry the Republican primary for Bush against McCain and his inexplicable opposition to GOP efforts to put a school choice initiative on the ballot in 1998 and again in 2000 (causing respected party state Chairman Betsey DeVos to resign her post in protest).
One is hard pressed to find a VP candidate from Illinois, where GOP Gov. George Ryan is under a corruption cloud and lunging ever leftward in an imitation of Richard Nixon’s pathetic attempts to stave off impeachment, or in Missouri, where Sen. John Ashcroft, otherwise a strong contender, is running for re-election in a very tight race.
ANOTHER WAY TO WORK the swing states is to target Roman Catholic voters. In 1998, 27 percent of all voters were Catholics, compared to 45 percent white Protestants and three percent Jewish. At the presidential level, Nixon won 54 percent of Catholics in his 1972 landslide; Reagan won 50 percent in 1980 and 54 percent in 1984; Bush 52 percent in 1988 and 35 percent in 1992 (to Clinton’s 44 percent and Perot’s 20); and Dole 37 percent in 1996 (to Clinton’s 53 percent and Perot’s 9).
A number of candidates could vie to become the GOP’s first Catholic nominee in history: not only the aforementioned Ridge, Cox, and Engler, but Florida Sen. Connie Mack, who has family (baseball) roots in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, and former New York Congressman Bill Paxon.
For years the GOP has been concerned about the “gender gap.” In 1980 Reagan won 55 percent of men and 47 percent of women; in 1988 those numbers for Bush were 57 and 50; for Dole in 1996 they were 44 and 38.
Former Reagan-Bush cabinet member Elizabeth Dole, who withdrew from this year’s presidential campaign before the Iowa caucuses, is much talked about. As a pro-life moderate, she might attract women voters without alienating any part of the Reagan Republican base. Washington State Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn is also much discussed as a possible VP. Although she lacks Dole’s national name recognition, she was a Reagan supporter as far back as 1968 and, as a strong conservative, has championed killing the death tax.
Colin Powell, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs under George Bush, would attract African-American voters, moderate whites who would like to vote for a black candidate, and countless Americans impressed by his bearing as a military leader. In 1998 black Americans made up ten percent of the electorate and voted 89-11 Democrat over Republican for Congress. Richard Nixon won 18 percent of the black vote in 1972, while Reagan won only 11 percent in 1980 and 9 percent in 1984. Bush won 12 percent in 1988 and 10 in 1992. Dole won 12 percent in 1996. Unfortunately, in his autobiography Powell expressed hostility to the Reagan Republican worldview.
The press has been pushing the idea that Bush must court the McCain vote, which raises the question of whether John McCain has a base that is transferable to the Bush ticket. We now know that the fawning press admiration available to McCain when he trashed Reaganism and Christian conservatives hasn’t continued. The same press that loved it when McCain attacked Republicans ignored his criticism of Gore’s illegal fundraising. Those Democrats ordered to the polls by labor unions and the Detroit political machine to win Michigan for McCain won’t be available to Bush in November. It’s also not clear what having McCain on the ticket would do for party unity, given that his principal role in the primary was to attack the various parts of the Reagan coalition. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, a supporter of McCain, could attract McCain voters without alienating those McCain attacked.
Conservatives have suggested Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, based on his success in cutting taxes, party building, and defending the Internet against taxes.
Last, there is an argument for choosing a vice president who is “old and/or sickly,” so that the GOP’s 30 governors and many senators won’t see the presidency closed to them for twelve or sixteen years. The Republican bench is so strong that the “don’t pick someone who will be a prohibitive favorite in 2004 if Bush loses or 2008 if Bush wins” lobby might well be the strongest voice inside the Republican leadership. The race for the presidency in 2008 begins the day George W. Bush announces his running mate for 2000.