Running for The Next-Best Thing

032607 article wiseguys Running for The Next Best ThingEvery four years, a special class of candidates emerges from among the contestants in the Presidential primaries: those who are really running for Vice President.

These would-be Veeps are not your garden-variety also-rans, the Dennis Kucinich and Duncan Hunter types who rather hilariously mistake their uncontested biannual victories in gerrymandered Congressional districts for some sort of national viability. Instead, they are reputable leaders with promising national profiles who, either before or at some point during the campaign, come to a pragmatic conclusion about their immediate futures.

John Edwards, in his 2004 bid for the Democratic nomination, illustrated this phenomenon nicely. He entered the campaign with the intention of winning, waging a relentless campaign in Iowa that brought him within a few percentage points of victory.

Yet from the day of his narrow loss in Iowa until he dropped out of the race six weeks later, Mr. Edwards bent over backwards to avoid even the appearance of criticizing his opponent, calculating that no amount of negativity would leapfrog him past the Massachusetts Senator—but that even a small amount might sour Mr. Kerry on the idea of making Mr. Edwards his running mate.

In terms of his career, Mr. Edwards was correct to pursue the No. 2 spot, which history has shown to be a safe spot from which to pursue future Presidential ambitions.

When the ticket wins, the new Vice President is immediately certified as his (or her) party’s front-runner the next time the nomination is open. Al Gore, George H.W. Bush, Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey all successfully followed this path. Although the value of serving as No. 2 on a losing ticket is less established—it did little for Sargent Shriver, Jack Kemp and Joe Lieberman—it clearly helped Mr. Edwards to become one of his party’s three Presidential front-runners for 2008, despite his weak performance as a running mate in 2004.

With the ’08 campaign in full swing, the question in both parties is who—if anyone—is lining up to play the John Edwards role this time around.

On the Democratic side, the verdict is already in, with reporters routinely asking Bill Richardson, the impeccably credentialed New Mexico governor who lacks top-tier star power—whether he’s actually angling to be someone’s running mate. As Mr. Edwards did in ’04, Mr. Richardson is denying it all with good humor.

Tellingly, though, Mr. Richardson is also taking a page from Mr. Edwards’ old playbook, loudly declaring his intention to shun negative campaign tactics against any of his fellow Democrats. Sure, it’s smart politics, especially as the Hillary-Barack mudslinging intensifies. But it also guarantees that Mr. Richardson won’t be scratched off anyone’s Vice Presidential list.

Vice Presidential politicking was equally apparent in Evan Bayh’s surprise announcement in December that he wouldn’t be an ’08 candidate (even though he’d essentially been running for two years). Upon exiting the race, Mr. Bayh almost immediately embarked on a trip to Iraq with Mrs. Clinton—prompting conversation that the Indiana Senator sees his passport to the national stage as the moderating influence on a Hillary-led Democratic ticket in 2008.

Similarly, Mark Warner’s abrupt October withdrawal from the Democratic race seemed a genuine head-scratcher. But as he and his closest allies have begun lending formal and informal help to Mr. Obama, a plausible explanation has emerged: Mr. Warner decided it was more practical to cozy up to a political rock star than to compete against him.

And yet it might be Mr. Obama himself who ends up playing the Edwards game. Sure, he and Hillary are sniping now, and it will only get uglier. But if Mrs. Clinton’s machine ultimately runs him down, Mr. Obama figures to face a dilemma: Continue attacking Mrs. Clinton in futility, or lend his magnetic personality to her ticket and enhance his chances at the top spot four or eight years down the road.

It’s not so complicated on the Republican side, where the field doesn’t appear to be harboring any logical Vice Presidential candidates at all. Both front-runners are non-starters as potential Vice Presidents—John McCain because of his age, and Rudy Giuliani because of his temperament. And the third-place candidate, Mitt Romney, would bring little to a national ticket: His intellectual inconsistency on social issues has left him distrusted by moderates and conservatives alike.

And beyond that trio, the other G.O.P. candidates are most notable for their underwhelming stature. The presence of lightly regarded political has-beens (and never-weres) like Jim Gilmore, Tommy Thompson and the aforementioned Mr. Hunter calls to mind the humorous tale of Milton Shapp, the Pennsylvania governor who briefly sought the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1976. When Mr. Shapp—who was memorably described by Jules Witcover as having “the look of a persecuted nebbish”—entered the race, reporters skipped right over the question of whether he was really seeking the Vice Presidency and asked him if he was actually running for Secretary of Transportation.

Steve Kornacki works as an organizer for Unity08, a group that advocates a bipartisan Presidential ticket in 2008.