Donald Trump’s choice of Indiana governor Mike Pence as his running mate in 2016 seems to confirm one of the oldest dictums about successful VPs: First and foremost, they should “do no harm.” In other words, their selection should not breed conflict or undermine the achievement of party unity.
Second, and equally important, the VP should be someone that the would-be president feels comfortable with. With a spotlight-grabber like Trump, that means someone who will take orders and remain loyal – to some, a lap dog. Pence’s role is to extol Trump’s virtues, reinforce his message, and above all, do nothing to upstage him.
Pundits who assumed that Trump would end up selecting Newt Gingrich or Chris Christie seem to have forgotten these two dictums. Both men remain controversial within the GOP establishment — and Gingrich, especially, has the ability to go rogue and overshadow Trump. In the end, The Donald was unlikely to pick either one.
Hillary faces a similar conundrum with her own VP selection, which could come as soon as Friday. Much of the speculation has focused on Virginia senator Tim Kaine and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. But, in fact, they are much like the Gingrich and Christie – too divisive and potentially too threatening to Clinton.
Warren excites the grassroots base but is opposed by moderate party poo-bahs like former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and New York senator Chuck Schumer who believe her stridency toward Wall Street will alienate the political center as well as key Democratic donors. And when she appears on stage with Clinton, you start to wonder why she, not Hillary, is at the top of the ticket.
Kaine, by contrast, looks like the ideal choice. His restrained temperament and centrist instincts could help woo independents and disaffected Republicans, his supporters say. But the former Virginia governor and chairman of the Democratic National Committee opposes partial birth abortion and strongly supports parental consent laws. That makes him anathema to abortion rights advocates, who in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision on Texas are feeling their oats right now.
So, who’s left? Just two candidates it seems: Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack. Practically no one’s heard of either one – just as few had heard of Pence. That’s a plus because it means no one’s likely to get too agitated about them and neither can upstage Clinton. Their solid executive experience as governors also makes them effective counterpoints to Pence. And like Pence, they appeal to the broader, more neglected parts of the country – the “American heartland” beyond the Beltway and the orbit of the “Washington establishment.” This is fast becoming “Trump country.” Hillary badly needs a VP that can help her contest this terrain.
The Clintons and the Vilsacks also go back a long way – to Hillary’s participation in the Senate Watergate investigation forty years ago. And those ties have continued through the years. Both Clintons have been instrumental in supporting Vilsack’s ascendance – Hillary through timely fundraising and political support during Vilsack’s gubernatorial campaign and Bill Clinton through brainstorming and mentoring on national policy issues. Last year, when Clinton needed an Iowa field manager, Vilsack prevailed upon her to hire one of his top aides, Matt Paul, who’s since become of her most trusted aides.
And there’s more: Hillary, unlike Trump, has an agenda for agriculture — and farmers, large and small, are desperate for her support. Net U.S. farm income is forecast to drop to its lowest level since 2002, largely due to a decline in grain prices. With Vilsack’s help, Clinton launched a major Renew Rural America initiative in Iowa last year, focusing on biofuels and biotech. With Vilsack on the ticket influential lobbies like CropAmerica would free up campaign funding and publicity support for Clinton at a time when Trump is surging not only in Iowa in other key swing states.
Vilsack’s still considered a “sleeper” pick, and some pundits believe she’s likely to choose Kaine, whose national security chops are impressive, too. But I’m betting that Clinton views Vilsack as the perfect foil to Pence: A man who represents the beleaguered Midwestern family farmer who might somehow convince wavering voters that she wants to “make America great again.”