The Unnoticed Tradition: Veeps Almost Never Are Drawn from the Ranks of State Officials

Roundup: Media's Take

Attoney Joshua Spivak, in the Washington Post (March 6, 2004):

Now that Sen. John Kerry has locked up the Democratic presidential nomination, the question turns to his selection of a running mate. Among the names being discussed are Dick Gephardt, John Edwards and Tom Vilsack -- a congressman, a senator and a governor. Do those job descriptions affect their chances? Maybe. While there are few formal selection criteria for a vice presidential nominee, past choices have historically followed a little-noticed pattern: Candidates are almost always drawn from the ranks of federal officials -- current or former senators, congressmen or Cabinet members.

In contrast to the presidency, where four of the past five incumbents served as chief executive of their states, governors are rarely selected as running mates. Since California's Earl Warren in 1948, then-Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's choice in 1968, has been the only state official nominated for the vice presidency by the Republican Party. Gerald Ford chose a long-serving former governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, to be his vice president when he succeeded Nixon in 1974 but replaced Rockefeller with Sen. Robert Dole on the 1976 ticket.

As for the Democrats, you have to go all the way back to 1924 to find their last gubernatorial choice for vice president -- Nebraska's Charles Bryan, brother of the"Great Commoner," William Jennings Bryan. Edmund Muskie, the Democratic nominee in 1968, and Joseph Robinson in 1928 had served as governors, but both had established significant reputations in the Senate by the time they were tapped for the nomination.

The reason behind the preference for federal officials is not obvious. Ever since John Adams got stuck with ideological and electoral opponent Thomas Jefferson as his vice president in 1796 (under the pre-12th-Amendment rules), choosing a running mate has been critical to presidential politics. But while vice presidents were judged important for electoral reasons, they rarely did much during the president's term, living up to the title"his superfluous excellency" that Adams had bestowed on the job. In recent years, vice presidents have had greater political stature, but they still have not been chosen based on their fitness for office. Rather, selections tend to reflect a presidential candidate's wish to counter a weakness, such as inexperience in a certain area, or to lend ideological, geographical or generational balance to the ticket.

Sometimes that is a good reason for favoring a federal official, as when presidential nominees whose experience is limited to the state level choose running mates with a background in Washington or foreign affairs. Such thinking explains Jimmy Carter's choice of Sen. Walter Mondale in 1976 and George W. Bush's choice of former defense secretary and congressman Dick Cheney. But even nominees with wide national experience have mostly chosen current or former federal officials as running mates. In 2000, Al Gore's shortlist was composed exclusively of senators.

The most logical explanation for the preference for federal officials may simply be that their positions give them a broader public profile. Committee hearings and the ability to sponsor and support bills affecting a nationwide audience make many federal lawmakers household names, something most governors never achieve. Cabinet officials, similarly, operate on the national stage, and they have the additional advantage of providing a connection with the policies of the presidents they served.

A corollary to the wider profile is the message to interest groups implied by the choice of an elected federal official. During a typical congressional session, a lawmaker casts well-publicized votes on hot-button issues such as abortion, gun control or the environment, which may not come up during a typical governor's term. By picking as his running mate someone with a favorable record on specific issues, the presidential nominee is able to reassure wavering voters that he has their interests at heart.

Will this pattern continue? Besides Vilsack of Iowa, governors Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Mark Warner of Virginia and, especially, Bill Richardson of New Mexico also have been touted as running mates for Kerry. Will one of them get the nod? Richardson, with his experience as a congressman, U.N. ambassador and Cabinet secretary, may be able to buck the trend, but history suggests that none of them should stay up at night waiting for that phone call.

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