Choosing the Veep of Your Dreams

Let the vetting begin. And the vetters beware.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The remaining candidates in the presidential race have toiled their way through the primaries, outlasting 18 opponents between the two parties. But pretty soon, there will be a new crop of potential White House denizens for the campaigns to worry about. And it seems they’ve barely started vetting them.

Springtime in an election year is vice-presidential selection season, when campaigns must begin brainstorming and vetting candidates for the major parties’ tickets. The process typically gets underway once presumptive nominees are in place, but this year, neither party enjoys the luxury of an entirely shoe-in candidacy. A group of political veterans is warning campaigns that they need to start anyway—or should’ve already begun.

“This is a weighty responsibility, and it cannot be rushed,” said Bob Bauer, the former Obama-campaign general counsel, on Friday. He noted that campaigns need at least eight weeks to assemble a roster, let the candidate get acquainted with potential VPs, and fully vet the favorites. This year, the conventions are earlier than usual; late May marks eight weeks before they start. Really, Obama campaign vet Anita Dunn told me this week, starting now is even a “little late.”

Bauer and Dunn, who are husband and wife, are part of a Bipartisan Policy Center working group that met Friday to share advice on proper VP selection; the panel coincided with the release of a formal report of the group’s recommendations. The impetus for their offering? Campaigns haven’t standardized how vice-presidential selection should be done. This is true even though the operatives often stay the same—spending their careers bouncing from campaign to campaign, sometimes switching teams mid-cycle.

During the meeting, group members warned against inadequate or delayed vetting, which can sour a campaign. Charles Black, a McCain and Kasich campaign adviser, said Friday that most people vote for the top of the ticket. But if vetting mistakes are made—if skeletons in a vice-presidential nominee’s closet begin rattling or the ticket lacks chemistry—it can affect voters’ choices.

This year, campaigns aren’t just dealing with a time crunch. On the Republican side, they also have a potentially contested convention to consider, which could play an outsized role in determining vice-presidential nominees. Benjamin Ginsberg, Mitt Romney’s national counsel, said a contested convention forces campaigns to make a tactical decision: Do they name their choice in advance to “coalesce support” around the ticket? Or wait for the convention, to convince delegates under duress to switch teams on a second ballot? The panelists Friday couldn’t predict exactly what campaigns will do.

During a campaign, the vice-presidential nominees are often viewed through a political lens: How can they—their background, their reputation—help or hinder a campaign? Joe Biden in 2008 helped alleviate worries about President Obama’s foreign policy credentials, said Dunn, who once served as the president’s White House communications director. (She said this reasoning is “not irrelevant for a few of the candidates running now”; though she didn’t name names, several candidates have taken criticism for lack of foreign policy experience.) Bill Clinton’s decision to choose Al Gore was a “generational message.” Even John McCain’s oft-criticized selection of Sarah Palin painted a potentially helpful picture: She had a reputation in Alaska for being a reformer, Dunn said, and taking on special interests.

Some camps seem to have started conceiving their lists, though it’s no clear how far they’ve gotten. John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, told The Boston Globe in a recent interview that there’s “no question” she’ll consider women for the VP spot. (The Globe, of course, wondered whether Massachusetts’ own Elizabeth Warren would be on the list.) The Washington Post reported that the Ted Cruz and John Kasich campaigns are getting names and background research together, and anonymous insiders floated a few ideas. The Trump campaign, the Post reports, is holding off on vetting, and there hasn’t been much talk of whom Bernie Sanders would select as a running mate.

This cycle, the front-runners’ “weaknesses only increase the importance of their vice presidential pick,” Reuters posited this week. Several potential choices for Hillary Clinton have political dimensions: Obama Cabinet members Julián Castro and Tom Perez are often cited for their ties to the Hispanic community, and Warren for her progressive street cred. It’s widely assumed Trump will need someone with more experience—“a political person,” as Trump has said—and/or someone with a calmer temperament. (Chris Christie, who some observers assumed was angling for a Cabinet post when he endorsed Trump, hits just one of those criteria.)

But selecting a vice president—what Dunn called “the first decision of the presidency”—isn’t just political or about sending a message to voters. It’s “highly personal” for the presidential nominee. It’s also a governing decision: Vice presidents in recent decades have more responsibility in administrations as advisers, Bauer said. Theoretically, the better the vetting—learning about a candidate’s history and personality—the better the governing.

And chemistry is paramount. House Speaker Paul Ryan campaigned with Mitt Romney on the stump as he was being considered for the vice presidential nomination in 2012, said Matt Rhoades, Romney’s former campaign manager. It was clear then that “a partnership was already forming”—they had a genuine rapport, and Romney trusted Ryan’s judgment. Rhoades compared his discussions with Romney about Ryan to high school friends chatting about the “girl [one buddy is] smitten with.”

As divisive a campaign cycle as this has been, all the candidates should be so lucky. Especially if they’re considering someone they beat out in the primary election, as Kasich reportedly is. Finding a vice president the contenders sincerely like, let alone are “smitten with,” isn’t guaranteed—and a lot of preparation is needed to try.