Controversial Trump, Clinton rely on appealing running mates

If you were offered a lottery ticket that had a better than 20 percent chance of winning the jackpot, you would probably buy it.

That’s what Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence and Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine just did. They are the vice presidential nominees of their parties.

Their odds of becoming president are based on nine of the 44 presidents having been succeeded by their vice presidents before their terms ended.

John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president for his first two terms, famously said his job wasn’t “worth a buck of warm spit” or something like that. FDR had left him out of major policy discussions, then the usual practice with vice presidents. Even if once correct, Garner’s quip now misses the mark.

In all the talk about the vice presidential picks, little attention is given to this most important of attributes: whether the candidate could step up to the top job.

Another important aspect of the choice is that it is probably the most important campaign decision a candidate can make.

The Pence and Kaine picks produce positive results to both tests.

Republican presidential nominee Trump needed a running mate, who understands how Washington works, has good conservative credentials and won’t steal his limelight. Pence fills the bill.

Some suggest that Trump would focus on broad policies and leave it to Pence to be the chief operating officer, running the White House on a day-to-day basis and dealing with congressional leaders on the president’s behalf. How that job would mesh with Trump’s attention to at least some details remains unknown.

In the meantime, Pence can be expected to be a fully supportive campaigner on the national campaign trail. Indiana, usually a sure bet for the GOP even without him on the ticket, will get little of his attention as his term ends.

Clinton’s pick of Kaine makes sense, though Bernie Sanders’ supporters wanted a more liberal running mate. Sanders himself, focusing on the priority of defeating Trump, is positive about the Clinton choice.

Like Pence, Kaine brings a combination of both legislative and executive experience. Obviously, though not as liberal as Sanders, he’s a sharp contrast with strict conservative Pence. While Virginia has been moving to the Democratic side, his choice should assure it goes for Clinton.

Clinton had to calculate that, faced with a Trump alternative, Sanders supporters had nowhere else to go. That meant she could accept their temporary ire by selecting a running mate who might help her attract moderates and disaffected Republicans.

The same thinking undoubtedly applied to her consideration of a woman, a Latino or an African American running mate. These constituencies should support her by good margins, given the alternative, and don’t need any further inducement.

Plus, given the growing importance of Latino voters, Kaine brings an unusual advantage. Not only does he speak Spanish fluently, but he spent almost a year working in Honduras running a local employment center. That on-the-ground experience should matter to some voters.

Clinton’s selection of Kaine while ignoring Sanders supporters suddenly became complicated. Sanders had long claimed that the Democratic Party was favoring Clinton. The surprise release of leaked emails provided the proof.

For months, Sanders had wanted Party Chair Debbie Wasserman Schulz to resign because of her favoritism. After the emails, she had to be forced out. Coupled with the Kaine selection, a concession had to be made to the Vermonter’s supporters. Still, Kaine himself seemed tone deaf to the importance of placating them.

Former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who once ran for veep, has said a vice presidential candidate rarely matters, but becomes a factor during the single vice presidential debate.

Pence could show his governmental experience and how well he can answer tough policy questions, filling gaps in Trump’s background. The debate with Kaine, who also has extensive experience, could be an in-depth clash of issue positions going beyond merely cheerleading for the top of the ticket.

In effect, a key turning point in the campaign could be this confrontation between professionals who both know their business. It’s possible that the vice presidential debate may be more critical this year than ever before.

If Trump were elected, the development and success of his policies could depend on Pence’s ability to push them through the Washington mill. Kaine, serving with an experienced president, would likely be a governing partner as has become the case since Al Gore served with Bill Clinton.

The two supposedly unpopular presidential candidates may find themselves unusually dependent on their two potentially more appealing running mates.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.