July 13, 2016
The decision is imminent. Sometime in the next 48 hours Donald Trump will end our suspense and choose a running mate. CBS is taping a 60 Minutes interview with Trump and his Veep-to-be on Friday. He’ll leak the choice ahead of the interview, which airs on Sunday evening.
If he hasn’t already decided, he’s making the choice now. So we’re looking at a similar chessboard, though likely with different vision. This is not an attempt to guess what Trump will do. We’re asking ourselves what a candidate in Trump’s position, with his proclivities should do.
A few ground rules:
Three possibilities are considered in the top group. Indiana Governor Mike Pence. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich. We’ve heard about other possibilities, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallon, and multiple ex-Generals, including Mike Flynn, who made a Sunday show appearance in which he bobbled the abortion question.
As far as we know (at least assuming she wasn’t lying in a recent interview), Fallon is not being formally vetted. So we’re not including her. Perhaps Trump hits us with a surprise, like John McCain did with Sarah Palin. Can’t worry about it. If it happens, it happens. For now, it sure looks like he’s spent the past week or two conducting a public audition, and we’ve covered the participants.
I’m dismissing military options out of hand. Not that he never could, but he shouldn’t. Several generals/famous military figures have gone on to succeed at the presidential level. From Andrew Jackson in 1828 to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, a path from military hero to the White House was established.
Some, like Zachary Taylor in 1848, Ulysses S. Grant in 1868, and Eisenhower, had no government experience aside from their military service. When people are thinking about adding a military figure to the ticket, or suggesting one for the presidency, they think back to those examples, not George Wallace tabbing Air Force General Curtis Le May in 1968, or Ross Perot picking Admiral James Stockdale in 1992.
Le May was the bombastic Air Force Chief of Staff who had a good run in World War II as a bomber group leader, before heading Strategic Air Command at the height of the Cold War. Le May was responsible for flying a bunch of nukes around in case the planes needed to immediately locate Soviet airspace. He was far more prominent than the choices Trump is kicking around and was still on the wrong side of the cut line.
At least pre-prosecution, David Petraeus would have qualified. Colin Powell would have upgraded any ticket in the 1990s or early 2000s. If this were 1996, Norman Schwartzkopf would have been a great fit for the Trump ticket. Emphasis on would have been as nobody remembers the first Gulf War, and Schwartzkopf is deceased.
There are exactly zero eligible military leaders who fit the template for success. We’re recommending a hard pass on the category. Senator Sessions wouldn’t be a disaster. He ran on the Trump platform in Alabama when The Apprentice was just a gleam in The Donald’s eye. After consistently voting for trade agreements in the first decade of his Senate career, Sessions moved to the Trump position a few years ago, and says he changed his mind because the deals didn’t work.
Logical enough. Sessions has zero delusions of grandeur and would stay very comfortably in the number two position, a pre-requisite for coexisting with Trump. After claiming the last important VP choice was JFK picking LBJ in 1960 and that most running mates don’t add much to the ticket, it’s easy to imagine him picking Sessions as someone who would do very little harm.
He is the safest choice. If Trump were handily leading, or even definitely ahead, if narrowly, you could make the case he should pick Sessions, who is more likely to stay in his lane than Gingrich or the temporarily neutered Christie, and is less uncomfortable under duress than Pence.
But there’s very limited upside. If Trump hasn’t done enough yet to get the type of voter Sessions appeals to out to the polls, there’s no hope. Also, he’s available and willing to act as a strong surrogate, regardless of whether he’s chosen. Were Trump to win, he’d have a strong ally in the Senate, even if he isn’t the most influential with his peers. We can do better.
Christie seems like a questionable choice. He’s at least as unpopular with the general public as Gingrich and is less popular among his constituents than Pence (who is actively seeking the job to avoid having to stand for re-election.) If he’d managed to avoid seeming like a lackey for the past several months, and was just unpopular at home instead of Superfund cleanup site toxic, he’s a good amplifier.
A running mate attempting to blunt the Trump message won’t work very well. Nobody gets reassured by a number two saying the leader doesn’t mean what he’s saying. Paul Ryan just spent an entire CNN town hall trying to explain how he can support Trump, and he’s not even stuck on the ticket with him. There’s no blunting or minimizing The Donald.
The Christie who eviscerated Marco Rubio would be the number one choice here. He could spend the next four months lighting in to Hillary Clinton and is very comfortable on TV. But too much damage was done to his brand. Pass.
Pence became the new favorite over the past couple/few days. He’s from GOP central casting and looks and acts like a sober conservative. His resume is solid. A decade as an influential congressman, a term as Indiana governor. But he’s not that popular at home after botching legislation regarding the right to refuse service to gays.
That was his first time in the national spotlight and he didn’t come out of it well. He tried to walk the line and keep business and social conservatives happy and left both questioning him. He wasn’t adept at handling tough questions from national media. Given the scrutiny a VP nominee is usually under and the need to perform in media settings if he’s going to provide a lot of value, this is a disqualifier.
Having roughly neutral favorability in Indiana doesn’t help either. A GOP governor who you would consider for national office should be widely popular at home. This isn’t New Jersey. If Christie had Pence’s numbers, I’d advocate for him. Pence should be as popular as John Kasich to appear credible. He’s not.
That leaves Newt. He’s flawed. Very flawed. As you would hear on a daily basis, he’s combined with Trump for 6 marriages. They would also combine for 143 years on the planet, being the oldest to win each of their respective positions for the first time. His public favorability ratings have ranged from somewhat underwater to drowning for the past twenty years.
Though he’s adapted/altered/moderated/changed his views on trade to fit Trump, it’s still possible he’ll occasionally step out on his own on policy/philosophy. If the idea is do no harm, he’s not a great fit. Eventually, he’ll say or do something that causes a problem. Gingrich last won election to something in 1998. He doesn’t have a geographic base. He lives in the D.C. area.
In a vacuum, there are literally hundreds of reasons to pass on Newt. But this isn’t one. The best and brightest of the GOP are skipping the convention, never mind volunteering to join Team Trump. Gingrich is far more nimble on his feet than Pence, more dynamic than Sessions, and has a less tarnished brand than Christie.
Another candidate might need to worry about being overshadowed. It’s impossible to overshadow Trump. Impossible. Newt is far and away the best Trump-to-Political English interpreter, capable of drawing a link, however tenuous between Trumpisim and Conservatism. He remains very popular with some Republicans and GOP-leaning Independents.
Some. Not all, or even that many, but for people who fancy themselves educated, open-minded conservative thinkers, he’s a branch to reach out to and justification to choose Trump as a lesser of two evils instead of staying home, picking Gary Johnson, or writing someone in. VP candidates have limited upside, but it’s conceivable Newt could net him a crucial extra point in a key state or three.
Gingrich usually has a gender gap of his own, but it’s not like Pence is going to magically bring millions of anti-Trump women into his column. Even if he had some effect, less-committed voters are just one Trump absurdity from jumping back out of his line at any time.
If Newt is at least as justifiable as a candidate, he’s a better choice to govern with. Pence and Christie are hoping to turn a VP run/term into taking a shot (or another in Christie’s case) at the big prize. Newt is 73. His best shot was 2012 and he knows it. The Cheney/Biden model of hiring somebody to play an influential role in the administration, in lieu of being the heir apparent has worked out pretty well for the participants.
He could also fairly easily scapegoat Gingrich if negotiations with Paul Ryan or congressional Democrats fell apart. It’s not a perfect choice, it’s not a perfectly safe choice, but there are none of those this time.
While I hesitate to assume that whatever works in Britain will work in America, the winning Leave campaign benefitted from UKIP leader Nigel Farage (playing the Trump role) combining with Tory Boris Johnson (starring as pseudo-Newt) to win over different factions. They were compatible enough to play well together, but distinct enough to widen the audience.
If Vice Presidential debates matter, you want a good debater. Christie definitely had his moments, but Newt is even stronger. Pence is a definite question mark without the national experience of the other two. Add it all up and the best choice is Gingrich. Nothing Trump could decide would shock me, but if he asked me who to pick, I’d say Newt.