Question: What do you call an avowed “job creator” who is going to have a lot of trouble filling the second-most-important job in America? Answer: Donald Trump.
While the vice presidential pick for a major party ticket is a job to which many politicians aspire, given the demographic and self-inflicted hurdles facing the Trump campaign, his list of potential White House roommates is, on the one hand, smaller, and on the other, more open-ended than any presidential candidate’s in recent history.
The question is, once the vetting and investigating and whittling down of candidates is done, which Republicans will actually want to run hand in hand with Donald Trump?
Thanks to a campaign during which he has insulted every single voting demographic in America, twice, Trump is politically radioactive. Not the cool kind of radioactive that gives you superpowers—the bad kind of radioactive that eats you up inside until there’s nothing left. While they are putting on a “good” show of grudgingly supporting the nominee privately, many Republicans will tell you they think 1) Trump is going to lose, 2) he’s going to cost the GOP several Senate seats and 3) he’s going to ruin the party’s relationship with Latinos for a generation. All of this has a huge impact on the pool of vice presidential picks from which Trump can choose.
As much as Trump has likened his vice presidential search to The Apprentice and implied that it is the “ultimate job interview,” the vice presidential selection process works both ways. No Republicans who really see themselves as having a long-term political future, or who are elected officials in purple states with diverse voters, are going to want to go anywhere near his train wreck of an image. That means governors like Rick Scott (Florida), Susana Martinez (New Mexico) and Nikki Haley (South Carolina) have already said no or will politely decline in the next six weeks.
On top of that, Trump considers himself a “winner,” so he doesn’t want washed-up politicos or damaged goods as his vice president. That means that political dead ends like Rick Perry, who is a two-time failure as a GOP presidential contender, won’t make the cut. Nor will Chris Christie. Christie looks so beat down and ashamed of his early Trump endorsement, even if the GOP tried to rescue him with a party-chair job or national spokesperson gig, he’d probably run and hide behind Trump’s back muttering, “My name is Reek.”
Lastly, Trump has said he wants a “political person” to help him govern and that he won’t “pander” in his selection. That is a cynical way of saying he probably won’t select a woman or person of color and he needs someone who is likely currently serving in office to explain to him exactly how a bill becomes a law. This pretty much narrows the list down to successful red-state politicians in electorally safe offices with no real chance of achieving national recognition outside of being Trump’s vice presidential pick. Which leaves us with three likely picks for Trump: the Balancer, the Hail Mary and the Bentsen/Benson.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.
Recent Examples: George Bush (Ronald Reagan, 1980); Al Gore (Bill Clinton, 1992)
The Balancer is the vice presidential pick made to even out the ticket. If the nominee is considered too liberal or too conservative for the party base, he or she picks a balancer to put voters at ease. Ronald Reagan was considered too conservative and reactionary during his time—hard as that may be to believe today—so consequently, he picked George H.W. Bush, who was considered a moderate at the time.
In 1992, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton was revealed to have smoked weed, dodged the Vietnam War and had more sexual harassment allegations than Christian Grey. So Clinton picked Sen. Al Gore, a conservative family man from Tennessee. How conservative was the Gore family? His wife, Tipper, led the moral crusade during the ’80s to put warning labels on music because she hated Prince (seriously, that’s what happened).
So who balances out Donald Trump in 2016? The generic choice would be Ted Cruz, but he’s got too much pride to join a Trump ticket. Plus, his entire political future is based on running around Washington, D.C., with a giant “I told you so” sign on Nov. 9 after the Trump campaign has utterly destroyed the Republican Party.
The Balancer pick for Trump would be Mike Pence, governor of Indiana. Pence has already endorsed Trump and clearly shares the GOP nominee’s racial views. How else can you explain his refusal to defend fellow Hoosier U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel from Trump’s ridiculous racial attacks? More importantly, Pence is a strong moral conservative on abortion, gay marriage and LGBT rights, key evangelical issues on which Trump waffles consistently.
Recent Examples: Lloyd Bentsen (Michael Dukakis, 1988); Joe Biden (Barack Obama, 2008)
The Bentsen/Bensons are the vice presidents who are picked because they know the job and seem more presidential, even if they have never made it to the top of a ticket. The name comes from two of the most important Bentsens/Bensons of the 1980s; one is real and the other was on TV.
Lloyd Bentsen was a Democratic senator from Texas who famously ethered Dan Quayle during the 1988 vice presidential debates. Tall, handsome, quick-witted and hailing from Texas, Bentsen, to many observers, looked more presidential than Dukakis. Even before the debate, Bentsen was seen by many as being more cunning and certainly having more gravitas than Dukakis.
The other Benson was Benson DuBois from the ’80s sitcom Benson. Benson was the black chief of staff and later lieutenant governor of the lovable, but incompetent, Gov. Gatling. Benson was the smartest guy in the governor’s mansion and basically ran everything, and if he weren’t a black man in the ’80s, he would’ve been elected governor himself.
Joe Biden was a Bentsen. Biden looked like a president, sounded like a president and actually knew Congress much better than Barack Obama. He was the perfect comfort food for white voters afraid to put a black man with little experience in the White House.
So who is Donald Trump’s Bentsen? Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). Corker has all but endorsed Trump already and is a very “presidential” Republican for modern times. He beat a black man for his Senate seat without being explicitly racist. He is chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And he knows Congress but actually believes in climate change. In almost any other year, Corker would have made a quality presidential candidate. The country could feel safe with Trump in the driver’s seat if Corker has his hand on the steering wheel.
The Hail Mary
Colin Powell (Bill Clinton, 1992; Bob Dole, 1996; and George W. Bush, 2000); Sarah Palin (John McCain, 2008)
When, as a candidate, you’re facing a tough election; when polls, demographics, gas prices and history aren’t on your side, you throw a political Hail Mary hoping to shake up the race in your favor. The Hail Mary vice presidential pick is as much about a candidate’s desperation as it is about the vice president’s unique qualifications.
While Colin Powell was never a vice presidential candidate, he was asked by Bill Clinton, Dole and George W. Bush to take on the job. Who cares that he didn’t have any government experience? He was the highest-ranking black man in the military and a Gulf War hero! That had to be worth something.
McCain picked an unqualified, but charismatic, Sarah Palin as a last-ditch effort to not get blown out by Obama. And it still didn’t work.
Truth is, unless you’re Aaron Rogers, Hail Marys don’t work, but if you are Donald Trump and your campaign has been throwing things at the wall hoping they’ll stick for months, why not a Hail Mary candidate like Jenean Hampton?
Hampton is lieutenant governor of Kentucky and the first black woman elected statewide in that state’s history. She’s a conservative military veteran and Tea Party favorite. A Hampton vice presidential pick would either create the political superstar the GOP wanted out of Bobby Jindal and Mia Love, or she would fail spectacularly, which Trump could survive through sheer force of personality.
There are likely dozens of other vice presidential picks that Trump could pursue in the next few weeks, but his choices are limited. He should pick a Bentsen/Benson because a Hail Mary wouldn’t save him and a Balancer may not be needed if enough Republicans return to the fold in time for the election. But he has to move fast, because with every single week, Trump says something else that makes associating with his candidacy more dangerous. He has got to sweeten this deal and fill this position soon; his decision-making so far hasn’t been great, and everyone, including those in his own party, needs to see the kind of people he would hire.