Choosing a running mate ain’t easy

The basic rule of choosing a vice-presidential candidate is in the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.

Deep in their hearts, most presidential candidates would rather run alone and in most cases they’d probably be better off. Political strategists pay lip service to the idea that the running mate should help where the candidate is weak — with a particular region or voting bloc.

Mostly what that does is remind the voters of who the candidate isn’t. The question of John McCain’s age — 71 — is brought up indirectly by suggestions that he choose a much younger running mate, implicit recognition that the old boy might not make it through all four or eight years.

Two possibilities mentioned for McCain are Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, 47, and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, 48, meaning that the Republican convention in Minneapolis could look like father-and-son night at the lodge.

McCain’s camp has floated the idea of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who, if you believe in these things, might help him with the big-city vote and Wall Street. The problem is that Bloomberg isn’t a Republican. He quit the party over a year ago, although, as they say, if you’re going to pick on every little thing.

The regional help a running mate brings is problematic. Although the two disliked each other, John Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson for Johnson’s strength in the South and West and won. Gerry Ford picked his old friend and colleague, Bob Dole, to carry the Farm Belt. Dole did and Ford still lost.

Ideally, a running mate should bring gravitas to the ticket. Michael Dukakis had the distinguished, experienced and widely respected Lloyd Bentsen beside him and got beaten badly. By Election Day, George Bush’s running mate, Dan Quayle, had become a laughingstock and Bush won handily.

Personal compatibility is also overrated. Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al and Tipper Gore left the New York convention on a campaign tour by bus. Reports said how the four had bonded and how it was like double dating, but by the end of the Clinton presidency the Clintons were barely speaking to the Gores.

Barack Obama’s choice of a vice-presidential candidate will be closely scrutinized and debated up to and through the convention, even if most voters will quickly forget about it thereafter.

Hillary Clinton’s supporters vehemently argued that because she finished a close second that she has earned the right to the vice-presidential nomination. We actually tried something like that in the early days of the Republic, when the winner of the general election got to be president and the runner-up vice president. We ended up with two guys in office who hated each other (Adams and Jefferson) and the Founding Fathers quickly rectified their error.

Clinton’s more starry-eyed backers say the good news is that with her on the ticket Obama would be getting two for the price of one. Obama’s more jaundiced backers may say the downside of having her as the running mate is that they’d get two for the price of one.

Sometimes running mates are chosen on how much buzz they’ll generate for the ticket. Dole picked Jack Kemp for his energy and electricity and Walter Mondale was conscious of creating a first when he chose Geraldine Ferraro.

Obama probably brings all the novelty his ticket will need. The conventional wisdom says go with a really safe candidate. The thing about conventional wisdom in presidential elections is this: Half the time it’s right.