Searching for Godot

Both Obama and McCain's vice presidential searches will share an age-old philosophy: Picking a running mate is less about winning votes than looking good.
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The job searches are on for the next vice president of the United States. Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain is holding job interviews with three candidates this weekend, while Sen. Barack Obama has set up a search process.

Both searches will share an age-old philosophy: Picking a running mate is less about winning votes than looking good. Vice presidential nominees rarely account for more than one-two percent of the national vote and rarely deliver their own states (think Lloyd Bentsen and Texas, Jack Kemp and New York, and John Edwards and North Carolina).

However, the choice of a running mate is one of the few big decisions a presidential candidate gets to make during the campaign.

A good choice can give voters a reason to take a closer look at the presidential candidate (think Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro), reinforce a broad generational theme (think Bill Clinton and Al Gore), or convey a certain seriousness (think Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale).

In turn, a bad choice can raise questions about judgment (think George H. W. Bush and Dan Quayle), doom a campaign to defeat (think George McGovern and Thomas Eagleton), or invite future scandal (think Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew).

Obama's choice will be among the easiest in recent history. He has to pick a candidate who will give him needed credibility among low-income voters in a battleground state such as Ohio or Pennsylvania. The easiest choice of all would be to put Hillary Clinton on the ticket, but that would be a reluctant alliance that could produce extraordinary conflict on the campaign trail.

Obama would be well advised to nominate a governor instead. He can hardly run against Washington with another senator in tow. Put Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell at the top of the list. He has a strong relationship with the voters that Obama needs, would likely deliver Pennsylvania, and served in the U.S. Army. He can also swing a political hatchet, letting Obama be Obama while cutting McCain down to size.

McCain's choice is much more difficult. He will have little trouble picking someone younger, no disrespect intended. But he also needs a Franken-Veep -- a running mate who can give the ticket a boost in a battleground state such as Florida, assuage the right wing, show some strength on economic issues, appeal to independents and Reagan Democrats, and shake up the race.

It is a nearly impossible search given the Republican talent pool. Louisiana's Bobby Jindal is almost young enough to be McCain's grandchild, Florida's Bill Crist has too little experience, Condoleezza Rice has nothing to add on economic issues, and Mitt Romney is too hungry. Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty looks like the best bet, but he has not attracted much national attention over the years and is no show stopper on the campaign trail.

The two job searches will not be judged just on November 4, however. Obama and McCain must pick candidates who are both good for their campaigns and good for the job. The two goals are not necessarily related.

Thirty years ago, being good for the job did not matter. The vice presidency was little more than a waiting room for a presidential accident. Today, the vice presidency is an extraordinary, perhaps even dangerous platform for influence. Guaranteed a West Wing Office, immediate access to intelligence, a shadow White House staff, and even a vice presidential anthem ("Hail Columbia"), the vice presidency has become one of the most important jobs in the country.

Not to put too much pressure on Obama and McCain, but the next vice president will be among the most important in U.S. history. He or she must not only restore confidence in the vice presidency itself, but must help reassure the nation that Washington will faithfully execute all the laws. The federal government has never needed a vice president's leadership more -- its missions are underfunded, its hierarchy is encrusted, its employees are frustrated, and its hidden workforce of contractors has never been larger. Asked to do more with less year after year, the federal government is on the verge of doing everything with nothing.

As the vice presidential job searches continue, Obama and McCain should ask each candidate what can be done to repair government. Anyone who cannot answer the question should be checked off the list, no matter how much he or she might help win the election.

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