Vice-Presidential Games: Who's This Year's Jack Kemp?

Theories abound about what qualities Barack Obama and John McCain should be looking for in a running mate. Does Obama need someone who’d bring instant credibility on national security and foreign policy to off-set McCain’s charges of inexperience and naïveté? How important is it for McCain, 24 years Obama’s senior, to fill out his ticket with someone considerably younger?

As Obama and McCain mull their options, here’s a look at the strategic calculations that produced recent VP choices from both parties—and whether those choices ultimately accomplished what they were supposed to.


The choice: John Kerry picked John Edwards, his defeated primary rival.

The thinking: Party unity was a driving factor. The primaries hadn’t been divisive at all—in part because Edwards calculated early on that Kerry was likely to win and began angling for the VP spot even while he was still a presidential candidate—but powerful forces within the party (both financial and activist) badly wanted Edwards on the ticket and made this clear to Kerry, whose personal preference was for Dick Gephardt.

Supposedly, Edwards would strengthen the ticket in rust-belt states (Ohio) and in the South, and his smooth communication skills would allow him to clobber Dick Cheney in the fall debate, the highest-profile moment for VP candidates.

Did it work?: No. Ohio went for Bush, the South remained a sea of red (even Edwards’ North Carolina, which the Democrats lost by 13 points), and—amazingly—Edwards lost the debate to dour Dick Cheney. Worse, he and Kerry were never a good fit and didn’t see eye-to-eye on strategy.

’08 equivalent: Obama picking Hillary Clinton or John McCain choosing Mitt Romney.



The Democratic choice: Al Gore picked Joe Lieberman.

The thinking: Gore, ridiculed for being boring and predictable, had fallen well behind George W. Bush over the summer. Lieberman’s selection, over John Kerry and Evan Bayh, would surprise the media and the political world and create some excitement, since no Jew had ever been nominated by a major party for national office. Lieberman would also help solve Gore’s “Clinton problem,” since he had been one of Clinton’s harshest Democratic critics during the Lewinsky affair. His religion would also help the ticket in the crucial swing state of Florida.

Did it work?: Kind of. Initially, the pick was a huge plus, netting a wave of favorable press for a Gore campaign that badly needed it. But Lieberman was a mixed bag as a candidate: Dick Cheney clearly got the better of him in the vice-presidential debate, taking two weak Lieberman stabs at humor and throwing them right back in his face. His Florida legacy is a mixed bag, too. You could say that he did actually help Gore win the state, since the elderly (and mostly Jewish) voters who were fooled by the notorious butterfly ballot clearly intended to vote for the Gore-Lieberman ticket. But during the recount, Lieberman was fatally disloyal to Gore and the Democrats, using a Meet the Press appearance to kill one of their legal strategies by echoing a Republican talking point about the status of ballots from overseas military personnel.

’08 equivalent: McCain choosing Bobby Jindal.


The Republican choice: George W. Bush chose Dick Cheney

The thinking: Cheney, tapped by Bush to head his search committee, ultimately recommended himself (over former Missouri Senator John Danforth). The one-time Defense Secretary (under Bush’s father) would add heft to the ticket, providing reassurance to voters who preferred Bush to Gore on a personal level but who were concerned about the Texas governor’s lack of seasoning.

Did it work: Yes. The word “gravitas” must have been used two million times by media outlets reporting Bush’s choice of Cheney, who hadn’t yet accrued any of the baggage that as vice president has utterly ruined his standing with the general public. His debate with Joe Lieberman was dreadfully boring, but the most memorable moments came from Cheney, who provided surprisingly quick and witty retorts to a pair of Lieberman jokes.

’08 equivalent: Obama picking Sam Nunn. (Or maybe one of the other leaders of his search committee …)


The choice: Bob Dole chose Jack Kemp.

The thinking: After Colin Powell, who made his resistance abundantly clear, Kemp was seen as the closest thing to a home run for Dole—a broadly popular and well-known former athlete with strong support among the party’s conservatives but with a reputation for reaching out to blacks, Hispanics and other constituencies long ignored by the G.O.P.

Did it work?: Not at all. Dole trailed Bill Clinton by about 20 points when he made the pick, which did generate some initial excitement, given Kemp’s relative celebrity. But Dole and Kemp, who never got along much on Capitol Hill in the 1980s, were barely seen together after that and Kemp received little national press coverage. Kemp’s fall efforts to appeal to minority voters—or to win over white independents who might like the idea of a Republican candidate reaching out to minorities—went nowhere and his performance in the VP debate with Al Gore, initially touted as a possible preview of the 2000 presidential election, was flat and widely panned—so bad that it ended most of the speculation about Kemp’s future presidential prospects on the spot.

’08 equivalent: There may not be one. The closest thing the G.O.P. has to a star of Kemp’s mid-‘90s standing is … McCain. There are plenty of possible VPs for McCain who would be as acceptable to the party base as Kemp was, but none have his broad appeal. And Obama, who will be the first black nominee in major party history, is hardly in the position that Dole was in terms of needing to create enthusiasm and press attention. The Kemp example does highlight the downside of teaming up two thoroughly incompatible candidates in an effort to grab publicity.


The choice: Bill Clinton picked Al Gore

The thinking: Running as the candidate of change and the first baby boomer ever to be nominated for president, Clinton opted for a pick that underscored his campaign’s generational themes—and that ignored conventional wisdom that running mates should provide some kind of contrast to the presidential nominee, whether regional or ideological. Gore, the thinking went, would help Clinton nationally more than in any particular state.

Did it work: Yes. Gore did bring his home state of Tennessee into the fold (he did it again in ’96, too), and his Southern roots probably made the Democratic ticket even more appealing in that region, helping the Democrats carry Georgia and Louisiana. The Clinton-Gore ticket is the only Democratic pairing to have made inroads in the South since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Plus, Gore performed well in his ’92 debate against a surprisingly able Dan Quayle (not to mention James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s running mate).

More importantly, Gore, then 44 years old, succeeded in reinforcing Clinton’s generational message. The Clinton and Gore families took off on a memorable bus tour after the July Democratic convention, and the sounds and images of the confident and energetic boomers together stoked the desire for change in a country that had been ruled by the World War II generation for the previous 32 years.

’08 equivalent: Obama picking Mark Warner.



The Democratic choiceg>: Michael Dukakis picked Lloyd Bentsen.

The thinking: The 67-year-old Bentsen, who looked and sounded like Hollywood’s idea of a president, brought stature and Washington experience to a ticket headed by a three-term Massachusetts governor. In theory, Bentsen would put his home state of Texas in play and make the Democratic ticket palatable to the South.

Did it work?: Well, not really—but Bentsen was, nonetheless, an excellent VP choice. In the end, Dukakis’ deficiencies as the presidential nominee were too much to overcome, and the ticket lost 40 states, including Texas and the rest of the South.

But Bentsen was a smash hit as the VP candidate mainly because George H. W. Bush ended up choosing Dan Quayle as his running mate, and the contrast between the two would-be VPs—one a gray-haired president out of central casting, the other a goofy 40-year-old who never seemed to quite understand what was going on around him—was startling. Bentsen’s devastating “You’re no Jack Kennedy” line in their debate remains one of the most memorable moments in campaign history. Had Bentsen and Quayle been the presidential candidates, it’s doubtful that Quayle would have carried a single state.

The ’08 equivalent: Obama picking Bob Graham or Jim Webb.


The Republican choice: George H. W. Bush chose Dan Quayle

The thinking: Bush was 64 years old and mistrusted by some influential conservative figures within the G.O.P. Quayle, a two-term senator from Indiana, was 40 years old, looked even younger, and was a favorite of the right. In theory, the pick seemed smart, bringing youth and energy to the ticket and maximizing party unity. Bush just overlooked the part about Quayle being a doofus.

Did it work: See above.

’08 equivalent: Without branding anyone “another Dan Quayle,” it’s worth noting that McCain faces the same pressures that Bush faced in ’88: He’s 72 and doesn’t have the trust of the right. He will face pressure to pick a running mate who makes as much sense on paper as Quayle did.

Vice-Presidential Games: Who's This Year's Jack Kemp?