Trump Time Capsule #39: Choosing a Veep

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Donald Trump and Mike Pence in Indiana this past week (John Sommers / Reuters)

Until this week, three episodes of choosing a vice presidential nominee stood out in post-World War II history as the clumsy ones:

  • 1972, when Democratic nominee Senator George McGovern chose Sen. Thomas Eagleton as his running mate, but had to swap him out for Sargent Shriver after news of Eagleton’s treatment for mental illness emerged;
  • 1988, when George H.W. Bush, then finishing eight years as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, chose young Sen. Dan Quayle—only to see Quayle immediately engulfed by hostile press questioning about his Vietnam-era record and other problems, followed by a very weak debate performance against his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen.
  • 2008, when Sen. John McCain, who was looking to shake things up and pull off a “game change,” chose Gov. Sarah Palin as his VP candidate. That led to a short-term polling boost but many longer-term problems.

In Bush’s case, the Quayle choice ended up as part of a winning ticket. In McGovern’s and McCain’s, the slate would probably have lost no matter who was the VP. And there’s a whole poli-sci argument about whether VP picks make any difference at all in the November outcome, which I won’t get into.

The range of other choices include some that clearly did no good electorally — Al Gore’s selection of Joe Lieberman in 2000, for instance — and others that look worse as the years go by, given the VP-candidate’s subsequent life arc. John Edwards, as John Kerry’s running mate in 2004, leads this list, followed by Palin. Dick Cheney, GW Bush’s choice in 2000 and 2004, probably was one of the many factors that allowed Bush to squeak into the White House, because of Cheney’s  then-reputation for foreign-policy experience and his dominance of Joe Lieberman in the VP debate. But from my perspective he was one of the worst-ever VP choices, because of what he actually did in office (and afterwards).


When matched against the run of past nominees, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana seems less impressive than most in electoral terms, and average-to-better on the experience front.

Electorally, a very conservative white man from a very conservative Midwestern state does Trump no obvious good with the Latino, African-American, female, young, college-educated, or environmentalist blocs of voters with whom he trails badly. Beyond that, Pence actively hurts with LGBT groups because of his involvement in Indiana’s  Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. He may hearten some Republican conservatives, but the need to do that is itself a trouble sign for a Republican nominee.

On the other hand, in terms of experience, Pence has incalculably more than Trump himself and as, as a long-time Congressman and now a governor, he has as much or more formal experience as many other recent VP candidates.

As for his instantly highlighted stark differences with three of Trump’s main campaign themes — Trump claims (falsely) that he was against the Iraq war, while Pence was strongly for it; Trump is against NAFTA and the TPP, while Pence is for them; Trump has renewed his calls for limits on Muslim immigration, while Pence has resisted  — this kind of Pres/VP tension has happened before. Any experienced politician knows how to present it as a sign of healthy creative tension etc.  Famous example: Candidate George H.W. Bush had strongly denounced candidate Ronald Reagan’s tax-cut plans as “voodoo economics,” when Bush was fighting Reagan for the 1980 GOP nomination. But after Reagan won, Bush loyally and effectively signed on as advocate for those tax cuts on the campaign trail as as Vice President.

Here we go!

So the result of this stage of Trump’s general-election campaign seems more positive than most of his other steps in the past two months. What may distinguish it in a bad way is the process — which in turn matters if it reflects on Trump’s ability to cope with complexities of national-level operations. In specific:

  1. Trump was left without the top-tier of possible running-mates to choose from. You can imagine the electoral and/or experience advantages that different people from this list might have brought: Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Nikki Haley, Rob Portman, Jeb Bush, Susana Martinez, Tim Scott, Ted Cruz, Jeff Flake, Tom Ridge, John Thune, Condoleezza Rice, Scott Walker, and so on.

    Each has weaknesses as well as strengths  — but the real point is that as soon as you see the list, you're reminded of the reasons none of them would run with Trump. Instead by all appearances he was left with a finalists group of Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Pence, of whom Pence was the least obviously damaged, do-minimal-harm choice.
  2. Trump’s Apprentice reality-show competitions were done in public. Vice-presidential choices are done in semi-secret. That’s mainly to protect the dignity (and retain the enthusiasm) of those who were not chosen—not a big concern on The Apprentice. This process was done practically in public, more Apprentice style. That doesn’t matter on the merits but is one more proxy of the difference between how presidents have to operate and what Trump has done.
  3. Trump was going to announce his selection formally at a press conference, which he then delayed because of the truck massacre in Nice. No one could fault that judgment on the merit. Jill Lawrence of USA Today explained why Trump’s reasons for doing so once again set him apart:

    “Donald Trump’s campaign manager may have just lost the presidential race for him, and it only took five words.

    “ ‘He emotionally reacted to it,’ Paul Manafort told Chris Cuomo on CNN, explaining why Trump postponed a press conference to announce his vice presidential pick...

    “There are many, many ways those five words may come to haunt Trump, starting with this: They crystallize his approach to pretty much everything — including campaign strategy, policy-making, the press, the Constitution, people who criticize him, political rivals and foreign leaders. They are Hillary Clinton’s ‘Daisy’ ad. All she needs to do is run those five words as a continuous loop against video of nuclear weapons and mushroom clouds.”

    To spell this out, national leaders need to be able to convey emotion, and to show that they understand the emotional forces affecting their constituents. But they are not supposed to act emotionally. You don’t want a president prone to blowing his or her top.

  4. The campaign-insider reports on the back-and-forth of choosing Pence, and whether Trump was trying at the last minute to back out, to me are significant and unusual in one particular way. Namely: that the only advisors Trump truly seems to heed and confide in are his own children.

    Of course every leader pays particular attention to his or her own family. Of course Trump’s children are experienced adults, with good educations and in some cases their own accomplishments. It’s only natural that he would listen to them. The remarkable fact, and the difference from past major-party figures, is the seeming absence of long-term peers who can tell a leader, “Look, you’re about to screw this up.”

    The lore of the White House is that by definition a president cannot make new “friends” once he gets there  —and from the moment of his or her elevation, it becomes harder and harder for anyone ever again to tell him uncomfortable truths. So every successful president needs to start out with a group of people who are reliably honest in that way. It’s not evident that Trump has any, apart from his kids.

  5. The inside-campaign detail that the Clinton forces had negative ads about Pence up and running before the Trump team had even changed its own website to mention Pence’s new role. Again, this doesn’t matter in itself. But it’s an illustration of the countless ways in which running a general-election campaign is harder and more complex than running in the primaries. And, unfortunately, running a White House is a thousand times harder than that.

    And when we’re talking about basic competence in the fundamentals of campaigning ….

  6. … that logo.

Now, it’s time to watch the actual announcement.