Sometimes when you hear the quadrennial debate about the vice-presidential choices of non-incumbent presidential nominees like Joe Biden, it sounds like engineers trying to build a robot and determining its most critical powers. It’s a debate because there’s no consensus about what a nominee should want in a running mate, but there are many theories. Do they provide racial or gender or ideological balance? How about particular appeal to important constituencies? Do they potentially strengthen the ticket in a key state or region? Or do they reinforce some important quality of the presidential candidate or their party? Does their résumé or their communications convey important areas of expertise the ticket or country needs?
Because all these are valid perspectives, there’s a temptation to resolve them by looking for “twofers” or “threefers”: candidates who check multiple boxes. But that can be a perilous approach if it obscures the fact that sometimes the whole is less than the sum of its parts: that politicians are real live people with flaws that can be missed if there’s too much focus on itemized strengths.
The most infamous recent example occurred in 2008, when John McCain, trailing Barack Obama in the polls, decided he needed a “game change” selection. He subsequently saw three potentially strong qualities in a certain Alaska governor, (a) as the first woman on a Republican ticket, she would get a lot of instant attention; (b) she had a “maverick-y” political biography, having challenged the Alaska GOP political Establishment, and even its sacred-cow oil industry; and (c) though she was unknown to the general public outside her state, she was the very favorite politician of the anti-abortion movement thanks to her walk-the-walk decision to carry to term a high-risk pregnancy knowing the child would have Down syndrome.
So she was a threefer, and though McCain had barely met her and didn’t know what she didn’t know, he made a “high-risk/high-reward” decision to pick her (after the same anti-abortionist activists who adored her vetoed his first two choices, Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge).
It made some sense at the time, but then it turned out McCain had chosen Sarah Palin, the goofy low-information extremist who tossed the political world’s best word salads until Donald Trump came along. A more general vetting, including a grade-school current-events test, might have made that clear.
Sometimes veep-pickers go to the other extreme and choose a candidate because they don’t check any negative boxes; they are political ciphers. You get the sense that’s how Hillary Clinton wound up with Tim Kaine in 2016: He was perfectly qualified résumé-wise, but was chosen apparently because he added or subtracted nothing distinctive to the ticket and could be expected to quietly do his job and stay out of the limelight, which he did.
That kind of approach has backfired on occasion too, most famously in 1968. Richard Nixon didn’t pick his veep until the convention, where he had nailed down the nomination in part through the efforts of Strom Thurmond, who held off a last-minute Ronald Reagan candidacy and secured a veto over the running mate. He vetoed a series of yankee liberals, and Nixon’s political advisers ruled out Reagan and other right-wingers. The last two prospects standing were two low-profile governors, John Volpe of Massachusetts and Spiro T. (Ted) Agnew of Maryland.
Agnew was considered ideologically neutral in part because he had courted different perceptions: Moderates knew he had won his single governor’s race by running against a rogue Democratic conservative who crusaded against fair housing laws, and had originally supported Nelson Rockefeller in 1968. Conservatives knew he had feuded with Black civil rights activists in Maryland, and endorsed Nixon after Rockefeller vacillated on running. So he was acceptable all around.
Unlike Palin or Kaine, Agnew became vice-president, and turned out to be anything but a political cipher, as the very public scourge of liberals and students and media types (something of a proto-Trump) and a hero to conservatives. He was also, Nixon half-joked, “my insurance policy” during the early stages of the Watergate investigation — until Maryland prosecutors stumbled on evidence that Agnew had been taking cash bribes from local road contractors dating back to his tenure as Baltimore County executive. He resigned as part of a plea deal in 1973, which is why Gerald Ford had the opportunity to succeed Nixon upon his resignation in 1974.
It’s a good idea, then, to choose someone to stand “a heartbeat away from the presidency” who doesn’t just check the right boxes or fail to check the wrong boxes, but has the overall character and skill set to do the job without becoming an embarrassment. Joe Biden is reportedly the kind of politician who will eventually choose a veep based on personal chemistry and his gut rather than any sort of box-checking, but if a “threefer” is available, the consultants around him may say: “She’s the one!”