Conventional wisdom holds that members of the House of Representatives, many of them elected by just a sliver of their home state’s electorate, are too anonymous, too untested, and just too risky to warrant serious vice-presidential consideration. A running mate, especially with the suffocating media scrutiny that defines politics these days, needs to bring a higher profile and deeper resume to the table.
In many ways, this is true. As anyone who’s spent more than a few minutes in the Speaker’s Lobby of the U.S. House can attest, the average House backbencher is less suited to and equipped for the national stage than even Dan Quayle was in 1988. But consider this: Since 1960, more sitting members of the House (two: Bill Miller and Geraldine Ferraro) have been chosen as running mates than sitting governors (Spiro Agnew).
O.K., so that’s a little misleading. Not many governors have been chosen for either party’s number-two slot because so many have won the top spot and then sought to balance their tickets with non-gubernatorial experience. But it’s also true that, for all the instinctive inclination to dismiss them out of hand, viable running-mate contenders from the House do emerge from time to time. Besides Miller and Ferraro, there are the examples of Lee Hamilton, who was one of Bill Clinton’s finalists in 1992, and Jack Kemp, who was probably Ronald Reagan’s preferred choice in 1980, before the political necessity of balancing his ticket with a moderate interfered. And, lest we forget, Richard Gephardt, John Kerry’s second choice (and Rupert Murdoch’s first) four years ago.
This summer has produced two running-mate prospects from the House, Democrat Chet Edwards (one of 32 representatives from Texas) and Republican Eric Cantor (one of Virginia’s 11). But between them, only Cantor seems to have the potential to overcome the inherent bias against the people’s House that presidential nominees invariably harbor.
In fact, it’s an open question whether Edwards, a 56-year-old centrist whose district includes George W. Bush’s hometown of Crawford, is even under consideration by Obama. His name is in the mix thanks to the very public crusading of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has hailed the nine-term lawmaker as “one of the finest people I’ve ever served with” and openly advocated him for Obama’s number-two slot in numerous national media interviews, as recently as yesterday. Perhaps this politicking has sparked legitimate curiosity from Obama. More likely, though, any attention he pays to Edwards is simply a courtesy to a legislative leader whose cooperation would be essential to the success of his presidency.
Edwards doesn’t make sense as a running mate because all of the usual knocks against House members apply doubly to Obama’s deliberations. Simply put, some presidential nominees can afford to pick an unknown congressman for their ticket, and some can’t.
Walter Mondale, who chose Ferraro in ’84, is a perfect example of one who could. A former vice president with a dull and conservative manner, Mondale had no problem convincing voters that he was prepared for the presidency. His challenge was to excite curiosity and interest, not to offer sober reassurance. Ferraro, a third-termer who became the first woman ever chosen for a major national ticket, was a risk he could afford to — and needed to — take.
Obama’s challenge is the opposite. He’s attracted all of the attention, curiosity and excitement he can handle. His challenge is to reassure. Picking a House member who, by the nature of his office, could easily be caricatured as a lightweight would offer far too much risk and far too little reward.
What’s more interesting is why Pelosi decided to push Edwards among all of the other House Democrats. The Speaker has a richly earned reputation for paranoia — her first act after the Democrats won the majority in 2006, recall, was a divisive and unsuccessful effort to flush her old rival, Steny Hoyer, from his No. 2 leadership post (even though Hoyer had long since given up any thoughts of challenging Pelosi). And she is known to place an extremely high premium on personal loyalty. In that sense, Edwards, who supported Hoyer in his 2001 leadership fight with Pelosi, is a rather unlikely favorite for the speaker.
Pragmatism probably explains her calculation. Clearly, she’s aware of the example of Tip O’Neill — the speaker who turned Mondale on to Ferraro in ’84 — and relishes the idea of playing a similar role in ’08. The problem is that her closest circle of House allies – George Miller, Jack Murtha, and Henry Waxman, among many others — provides no logical VP prospects. They are all some combination of too old and too liberal — and just not presidential. She has some younger supporters in her caucus as well, but the last thing that Obama needs is a youthful House member to reassure voters about his seasoning.
What Edwards represents, then, is a compromise between Pelosi’s desire for personal loyalty and the reality that most of her allies are poor fits for an Obama-led ticket. Edwards, with nearly two decades of experience, expertise on budget and military issues, and a red-state-friendly moderate voting record, is at least theoretically plausible as an Obama running mate. But it’s still a remote possibility.
It’s a different story on the Republican side. The 45-year-old Cantor, who won his seat in 2000, owes his place on John McCain’s list not to the insistence of a House G.O.P. leader, but rather to what seems to be the legitimate interest of the candidate himself. This makes sense for several reasons.
For one, McCain is in the exact opposite position as Obama when it comes to the VP risk factor. McCain, sort of like Mondale in ’84, is a known commodity, and voters need little reassurance that he has the necessary preparation and seasoning to lead. He can afford to team up with a running mate whose main experience involves seven years in the U.S. House. Cantor’s (relative) youth would bring energy to the ticket, and his Jewish background would also attract considerable attention. On the whole, picking a wild card like Cantor would attract attention — something McCain, to his immense frustration, has struggled to do.
Cantor would help in two other specific ways. First, his prodigious fund-raising skills would bring in some badly-needed cash — this in a year in which Obama could spend $300 million. And he could boost McCain in Virginia, a state that Obama is furiously targeting — and that could tip the whole election if it flips to the Democrats for the first time since 1964. Cantor only represents a small part of the state, and his presence probably wouldn’t add more than one percent to McCain’s statewide total (if that) — but have you seen how close the polls are there?
Cantor’s prospects are further aided by the dearth of top-tier options for McCain. Mitt Romney looms as his most logical selection and Tim Pawlenty has been the subject of plenty of speculation. Pawlenty would bring very little to the ticket, while Romney might be helpful in Michigan and with money. But his negative ratings are high and there could be some lingering resentments from the primary season. Beyond those two, there are no other obvious prospects for McCain to consider. If he’s looking for a non-Romney/Pawlenty option, why not Cantor?
Chances are that there won’t be a House member on either party’s ticket for the sixth straight election. But if there’s going to be one this year, it will almost certainly be a Republican.