Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Trump and the Incredible Shrinking Shortlist

Every four years, there is a moment in the campaign where a presidential aspirant has to look someone in the eyes, asking them to take a gigantic leap-of-faith and be their running-mate, potentially their partner for the rest of history (or in the case of Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina, the rest of random footnotes in political science textbooks).  In the next few weeks, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be doing the same thing, asking two individuals to run with them and trying to convince tens of millions of Americans that putting them in charge of their safety, children, economy, and lives is the right decision.

Frequently accompanying this moment is a series of far less historic, far less memorable but equally important instances where the presidential aspirant has to ask his (or her-glass ceiling, breaking to pieces!), running-mate if they are comfortable getting behind issues that they don't necessarily agree with that the presidential aspirant has made part of their platform.  In America we rarely see disagreement from our president and vice president, and the role of a vice presidential candidate in the election is certainly not to have drastically different views on issues than the presidential candidate does, because no one actually votes based on the veep unless it's their home state or they are a national laughingstock.  With this vetting, you also have to think about what that veep candidate has theoretically said about the president in the past that may look like a campaign ad that could easily be used by their opponents to make the ticket look "flip-flop"-like or disjointed.

You see where I'm going with this, aren't you, and it's not in regard to a woman who is about to have half of her lifelong dream come true tonight.  Donald Trump's recent comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel have elicited a chorus of criticisms from many of his potential running-mates and his fellow Republicans the likes of which I cannot recall ever seeing in a presidential campaign.  This is on top of almost a year of every major Republican in the party repeatedly, constantly, trying to cut Trump down for size-there is an endless series of clips of Trump's fellow Republicans coming out and vehemently opposing the New York real estate mogul on his way to the White House with some (Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse), continuing that trend, and you can bet your ass that Hillary Clinton has every single one of them locked and ready to go for airtime in the next few months and leading up to the RNC.  Trump is in a predicament now where nearly every single major Republican in the party is on the record as opposing him, disparaging him, and being deeply critical of him on issues that are pretty personal like race and gender equality.

It's not like presidential tickets haven't moved past this moment in the campaign before.  After all, Joe Biden stated that Barack Obama wasn't "ready to be president" when he was campaigning against him in the 2008 election, and John Edwards was deeply critical of John Kerry's record on trade prior to eventually joining his ticket.  These clips were used in ads, but made little difference in the campaign because as a general rule both Obama and Kerry had their party's support locked up, and independents don't particularly care (or even want) the presidential ticket completely unified on every issue.  This isn't the case for Trump, where a number of Republicans and conservative-minded independents are on the fence about him to begin with-seeing a complete lack of unity on the ticket has to be frustrating for them.  When Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are clearly floundering in trying to find a way to support Trump during interviews, you know there's something wrong.

But if it was just that the running-mate had said terrible things about Trump, it wouldn't be so bad, but Trump has shown a vindictive, nasty trend on the campaign trail of saying whatever he wants about whomever he wants, and isn't someone who enjoys getting criticized, particularly by people he expects should be in his corner (ie incumbent Republican office-holders).  It's not hard to imagine both Bob Corker and Newt Gingrich got cut from the list of Trump running-mates after their criticisms of the presidential candidate's heinous treatment of Curiel, and in the case of Corker, perhaps he got out just in time.  If Trump is going to only stick to people who clearly want to be his running-mate and are not critical of him, that list is slim.  Newt Gingrich is now off, which leaves a motley crew of the likes of Jeff Sessions, Sarah Palin, Ben Carson, and Chris Christie, none of which is a particularly incredible veep candidate, and in the case of Palin and Carson, could be an abject disaster.

This is the hand that Trump has dealt himself.  Unless he wants someone like Palin or Carson, he needs to stop speaking his mind and saying things that will grab headlines, but that is the lifeblood of his campaign, and he can't afford to do that (literally, if his soft fundraising numbers are to be believed).  So he's either going to have to pick someone 100% loyal or pick someone who hasn't always been a friend.

And with that, there is the other difficult side of this coin.  Donald Trump still polls behind Hillary Clinton and electoral strategists say she's the odds-on-favorite.  That in itself could get people like Nikki Haley and Susana Martinez from taking a look at Trump's second spot.  On top of that, though, if you're an A-List politician who has a future in perhaps 2020 or 2024 on a presidential ticket, why would you risk associating yourself in an obvious, impossible-to-unlink way for a man who is likely going to lose, and whose platform has been routinely lambasted by a large swath of the American public?  Signing up for Trump means you're adding those Judge Curiel comments, the ones against American Muslims and Megyn Kelly and Carly Fiorina's face and John McCain's patriotism to your own resume, and those are only the things that we know so far; who knows what heinous, terrible things Trump could say in the coming months as he gets nasty (or starts to see what it's like to lose a race) against Hillary Clinton and her diverse surrogates on the campaign trail.  Who wants to sign up for having to silently stand behind everything Trump says like the good soldier a VP nominee needs to be, to have to defend him for two hours in a debate when your opponent gets the incredibly easy job of just linking you to Trump?  Who wants to ruin a promising career by taking such a risk?  The striking thing about Christie, Palin, Carson, and Gingrich is that they don't have a career left-this is their last shot at the brass ring, which is why they're willing to go further with Trump than someone like Haley or Martinez, who will still be strong candidates in four years for a national ticket.

Republicans will protest often that Hillary Clinton is just as unpopular as Trump (not true, but I'll grant she's not popular), but there's a difference in their public perceptions.  Clinton's deficits as a candidate (she's "unlikable," the email scandal, the public's trust in her, her evasive relationship with the media) are relatively easy to dismiss in the future if you need to, but her platform is one that pretty much every mainstream Democrat running for the White House would need to embrace anyway, unlike Trump.  The likes of Tim Kaine, Julian Castro, and Cory Booker could easily still run in four or eight years if they had to be tied to Clinton-she is still well-liked by Democrats and four years from now will be respected enough if she loses that having her association isn't going to hurt her theoretical running-mate.  We saw that when she became Secretary of State and her approval ratings were at an all-time high.  Take out the politician aspect, and she likely returns to that realm.  Plus, she's the favorite right now and has held a near uninterrupted lead over Trump for over a year.  There's a good chance that they in fact become the Vice President, and as historians will tell you 29% of vice presidents eventually become president-those are damn fine odds for anyone aspiring for the Oval Office.  The same cannot be said for Trump-he is not in the lead, and his comments will age poorly, not better, if history is any indication.  History vindicated people who were ahead of their time like Eugene McCarthy, less so Joe McCarthy.  Running with Trump is a tattoo you can't get removed, and Trump better realize that before he has no other viable running-mates willing to make the run with him.

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