Do Veeps Matter?

David Brooks:

... most of the commentary on vice president picks is completely backward. Most discussion focuses on what state or constituency this or that running mate could help carry in the fall. But, as a rule, recent vice presidential nominees haven’t had any effect on key states or constituencies. They haven’t had much effect on elections at all, except occasionally as hapless distractions.

A vice president can, however, have a gigantic impact on an administration once in office (see: Cheney, Richard). Therefore, a sensible presidential candidate shouldn’t be selecting a mate on the basis of who can help him get elected. He should be thinking about who can help him govern successfully so he can get re-elected.

From this premise, Brooks goes on to argue that Obama should consider picking Sam Nunn and Tom Daschle, both of whom are sufficiently uninspiring choices to harden my suspicion that the premise might be flawed. For one thing, while it's true that Dick Cheney and Al Gore have been more influential than previous vice presidents, it's by no means certain that the pattern will continue (and even Al Gore wasn't all that influential, particularly as his relationship with Clinton cooled). Indeed, given the cautionary example of Cheney, it's easy to imagine the next few Presidents steering back toward the model that prevailed throughout much of American history, and limiting the vice president's portfolio to the office's traditional duties - attack dog, goodwill ambassador, and resentful heir apparent.

As for whether a veep pick can swing an election - well, certainly it doesn't have the impact that the level of breathless speculation in the media (and this blog is as guilty as any other outlet) would lead one to believe it does. And Brooks is right that the days when picking a native son would deliver a contested state seem to be behind us. But that doesn't mean that an inspired choice can't have a powerful impact on the overall narrative of a Presidential campaign. As I've argued before, I think that Clinton's pick of Gore in 1992 and Gore's pick of Lieberman in 2000 changed the dynamics of both races in the Democrats' favor, and while Clinton might have won without Gore, I'd be willing to wager a lot of money that Gore wouldn't have won the electoral or the popular vote if he'd gone with, say, John Kerry instead of Lieberman. It's true that even the most inspired pick can't save a doomed campaign, and it's likewise true that often there aren't any inspired picks available, in which case picking someone who can help you govern may make a certain sense. But while I'm not sure there's an ideal running mate for McCain floating around the Republican Party at the moment, on the Democratic side I'm pretty sure that Obama can do a Webb of a lot better than Sam Nunn or Tom Daschle. (And posts like this one only harden that conviction.)