Normally, as the countdown to the selection of a vice presidential running mate draws to its conclusion, the stakes become clearer. Should the presidential nominee select someone who will unite the party, as John Kennedy did when he picked Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan did when he selected George H. W. Bush? Should the presidential nominee imitate Bill Clinton who, in 1992, doubled down on his own credentials and reinforced his image as a young, "new Democrat" from the South, by choosing Al Gore? Or do you help a flailing campaign by throwing long, hoping to upset the otherwise unfavorable dynamics of the race by picking someone unconventional, as John McCain risked when he picked Sarah Palin?
This year is not normal, and the core problem Donald Trump faces is one that harkens back to an earlier time when the vice presidency was dubbed by Vice President John Nance Garner as "not worth a bucket of warm spit." In the 1930s, when Garner served as vice president for Franklin Roosevelt's first two terms, the vice president had little to do, presiding over the Senate if he wished, but mindful that the majority leader had the power, attending Cabinet meetings, but mindful that the president's team had more influence.
Two things happened in the last half of the 20th century that made people covet the selection Garner had so spurned. First, it dawned on people that many vice presidents went on to the top job, either through tragedy or political lineage: In the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson all became president when their predecessor died in office. Additionally, Richard Nixon, having served as Eisenhower's vice president, lost the presidency in 1960 but came back to win the White House eight years later. In 1988, George H. W. Bush became the only sitting vice president to move up to the top job, keeping control of the White House with the same party for more than eight years for the only time in the 20th century. Becoming a vice presidential candidate launches someone into a national political career and, as often as not, paves the way for them to become president.
N.B. Additionally, previous vice presidents and vice presidential candidates often become their party's nominee, even if they go on to lose: Gore, Bob Dole, and Walter Mondale fit this category.
The second thing that happened is that presidents began giving their vice presidents influence within the counsels of the White House, starting with Mondale. Jimmy Carter had no foreign policy experience and no experience of working in Washington, whereas Mondale was a consummate liberal insider, a protégé of Hubert Humphrey with 12 years of experience in the Senate. Carter made him a part of his own team in a way no previous vice president had been. In the Reagan years, Bush was never a part of the innermost circle, but he was given specific tasks, and Reagan valued his loyalty. Al Gore had the "reinventing government" task which fit his wonky character and ended up saving the American taxpayer billions of dollars. Gore, also, was a policy heavyweight who could hold his own within the administration. Dick Cheney assumed enormous amounts of power when he served as vice president, and Joe Biden is widely understood to be the one person other than the First Lady who can call President Obama to task.
Visit EarthBeat, NCR's new reporting project that explores the ways Catholics and other faith groups are taking action on the climate crisis.
Trump has recognized that he needs someone with Washington experience, someone who can help him navigate Congress and the federal bureaucracy, someone on the inside who can help the outsider succeed. But, here is the rub? Who with that skill set thinks running with Trump would help their political career? The one thing that unites every name mentioned in this post so far is that they were all of them ambitious. And, it is not clear at all whether or not a person's political ambitions would be well served by being Trump's running mate.
In a sense, every Republican running for office this year is asking themselves how they should stand in relation to Trump. A record number of prominent Republican office holders are skipping next week's convention in Cleveland. A few brave senators like Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Mark Kirk of Illinois have said they won't be voting for Trump. Others have fudged the issue, a stance that will only become increasingly difficult as the Donald continues to dominate the news cycles, and the local press corps peppers the GOP candidates at every level what they think of his latest outrageous remark.
Being on the ballot with the pugilistic narcissist is bad enough, but being his running mate raises the stakes to a whole different pitch. Readers may recall watching an awkward Gov. Chris Christie, standing behind Trump on the night of the Super Tuesday primaries, looking like he had been taken hostage as Trump riffed and ranted. The episode provoked a host of hilarious tweets and commentary. Imagine being in that position every night for the next four months. Gov. Mike Pence and Sen. Bob Corker should watch that Christie videotape long and hard before allowing themselves to be vetted.
Of course, Trump could pick someone like Newt Gingrich whose 2012 run for the GOP nomination was a book tour pretending to be a presidential campaign. Gingrich and his wife, Callista, have their own industry producing books and movies, each one more insipid than the last, and there is nothing like a presidential campaign to put an author or producer before the public eye. This year Ben Carson's campaign had the look and feel of a book tour. And, several other candidates, who knew they had no realistic shot, surely were angling for a shot at hosting a Fox News show. Trump could select a vice presidential candidate from the ranks of these would-be entrepreneurs, for whom political ambition has given way to a desire for cash or stardom or both, but that would reinforce his image as someone on the make. And, in the case of Gingrich, Trump's continued attacks on the Clintons for Bill's behavior with Monica would be a tougher sell with Newt standing beside him. (Christie's as yet unclear involvement in "Bridgegate," a far worse scandal than anything Clinton did with her emails, has the same negative effect on his chances.)
Who is it going to be? Stay tuned. I suspect it will be someone who is thinking about leaving politics, but hasn't yet, someone who would like having a billionaire friend to help them in their post-politics career, and someone for whom the case could be made that the choice strengthens Trump's chances in November. I suspect that someone will be Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]