There is no surer sign that a writer has pundititis than to start picking vice presidential nominees. It's a God-given chance to be dead wrong in public -- twice. And so I simply can't resist the temptation to reveal -- with my usual uncanny accuracy -- the identity of the next vice president of the United States.
Up front, I enthusiastically solicit your comments. This won't be nearly as fun if you don't state and debate your choices. And feel free to tell me I'm a moron -- one way or the other, some of you are certain to be right.
Use any criteria you like -- from the ideal to the pragmatic. Just so you know, my own lens is cold eyed realism -- what is likely to happen, not who I'd prefer, or what might occur in a better cosmos. All I'm trying to do is make an informed guess in the context of current political realities as I perceive them, tested by conversations with smart insiders from both parties.
That said, here goes.
Democrats first. Maybe this is cheating. But it's always easier to make guesses when the nominee doing the choosing is, whatever you might think of him or her, sane.
In this case, Hillary Clinton. Not only is she in charge of all her faculties; she's experienced in politics and governance. Which makes her more predictable, and narrows the field of choices.
Let's start with the four basic templates for picking a running mate.
The first is trying to carry your choice's home state. This is more discussed than real: in the last 10 election cycles, the vice presidential choice has given the ticket an average 1.1 percent bump in his or her state. As the latest example, the Romney-Ryan ticket lost Wisconsin.
The second is to add some assets to the ticket. Most recently, Barack Obama compensated for his lack of foreign policy experience by picking Joe Biden.
The third is to amp up some excitement. By selecting Al Gore, Bill Clinton sent a message of generational change.
The fourth, and perhaps the most widely honored, is to be sure the nominee -- whatever else they might offer -- doesn't do the campaign any harm. Here the best example is the train wreck which can happen when you don't take this into account -- Sarah Palin.
So let's consider how all this fits with Hillary Clinton.
To start, she need not pick a vice president to help her navigate Washington, or to persuade voters that she has someone more seasoned to call on. So she is free to weigh the remaining criteria based on personal preference and practical political advantage.
Among other things, these potential determinants include a person with whom Clinton feels comfortable, and whose loyalty she can count on. A person who appeals to important party constituencies or, perhaps, might help pick up a state -- though, as noted, the latter is less a factor than people think. A person unlikely to do harm.
One critical element is that the existence of Donald Trump gives Clinton greater leeway. Obviously, it would be quite helpful if Sanders voters felt enthusiastic about her choice. But the prospect of Trump as president will help consolidate many of them -- though certainly not all. And Trump's gift for alienating minorities make it less imperative that Clinton pick an Hispanic or African-American.
As president, Clinton would like a Senate controlled by Democrats. This cuts against choosing a senator from a state with a Republican governor who would choose the replacement.
Finally, because Clinton has a problem with white guys, an appealing male candidate might help more than would a woman. Still, one way for Clinton to get a second look from voters who don't like her is to depart from stereotype by making a daring choice.
So let's start narrowing the field.
Bernie Sanders? The selection of Sanders would help cement support from the millions inspired by his campaign. But there are compelling reasons why this will never happen.
The biggest is that Sanders is simply not a vice presidential type. It is difficult to imagine him as a loyal messenger for Clinton, deprived of the freedom to advance his own agenda. Sanders should not want this, and it does not serve his interests.
For many of the same reasons, as well as the absence of personal closeness, Sanders would not be a comfortable subordinate for Clinton. And when the presidential nominee is in her late 60s, the heart which is one heartbeat away probably should not be seven years older. Sanders stays in the Senate.
Elizabeth Warren? More likely than Sanders, to be sure. She's principled, and shares many of those principles with Bernie. Nobody tears into Trump any better, or enjoys it more - it's as though God designed The Donald to embody every loathesome attribute that Warren despises in her bones. She would add fire to the ticket, and it's fun to think of Clinton countering Trump's misogyny by doubling down on the historic nature of her candidacy.
Their first joint appearance was surprisingly comfortable and devastatingly effective. Of the vice presidential prospects, Warren is easily the most electric, at least for the progressive left. All that raises her prospects of being chosen.
But Warren is not generally known for tractability, and she and Clinton do not have a close relationship. She's ambitious, inner directed, and would not happily share the stage with the two Presidents Clinton, current or former. Her history includes several sharp attacks on Clinton, and Wall Street doesn't like her -- though that could cut both ways.
In all likelihood, her name is being floated to propitiate the Democratic left. But Warren could do her work as a surrogate almost as well outside the ticket. The speculation that Brexit ups the chances of a more populist candidate like Warren strikes me as overblown, the usual media overreaction to the immediate in a campaign season with over four months yet to go. And a Republican governor would appoint her successor, albeit for a shorter time under Massachusetts law. All in all, it still seems unlikely that Warren will be chosen.
Cory Booker? Good for some excitement, though his tenure in the Senate has been unremarkable. A bit too young and unseasoned, perhaps. If Clinton tapped him, Chris Christie would put a Republican in his place. African-Americans are with her already. And come the fall, America's premier black politician will be campaigning for Clinton as if his legacy depended on It.
Obscure white guys from swing states? This includes Senator Michael Bennett and Governor John Hickenlooper from Colorado, and Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio. But trying to win a single state doesn't trump everything else, and Trump's problems with Hispanics has likely given Clinton Colorado. Ohio is a bigger deal, but Ryan is not a bigger name.
Tom Perez? No one knows him. And there are other Hispanic officeholders who can bring more passion to the stump.
So here are my finalists.
Sherrod Brown. But for one not so small problem, Brown would be my odds-on pick. He's articulate, smart and well regarded, a senator with genuine appeal to blue-collar voters. And he could help Clinton carry Ohio, a devastating blow to Trump.
Brown supported Clinton in the primaries, and she clearly likes him. But on many issues, such as TPP, Brown has more in common with Bernie Sanders -- a good thing for the ticket. And less skilled politicians skate past their differences all the time
So what's not to like? Simply this -- John Kasich would appoint Brown's successor, jeopardizing the Democrats' chances of flipping the Senate. The question is whether Clinton prefers Brown so much that she would risk this -- and all the pushback which would follow. Probably not.
Tim Kaine. For good reason, he's the walking definition of this year's conventional wisdom -- a steady, likable and capable if unexciting white guy. He speaks fluent Spanish. He has been a widely-respected governor and senator from Virginia, a swing state, and a Democrat would appoint his successor. And as a former party chair, he knows every donor in the country.
If "first do no harm" is Clinton's chief criteria, Kaine is the obvious choice. But he would provide little in the way of spark, particularly for the Democratic left, who may remember his support for TPP. For those who perceive Hillary Clinton as overcautious, picking Kaine would be Exhibit A. Still, by tradition presidential nominees choose running mates who reliably hit singles, rather than hoping for home runs. That's Kaine.
Julian Castro. The secretary of HUD -- smart, articulate, youthful, and Hispanic. Choosing Castro would link Clinton to our demographic future -- he personifies the ways in which America is changing, and might attract some of the young people who found Sanders so compelling. As a matter of sheer optics, he and Clinton would make a good-looking ticket.
But Clinton has the Hispanic vote already. Castro can't help her carry Texas -- no one could. He has not really been tested on the national stage. And he looks even younger than he is -- a bit too young, perhaps.
Still, if the ongoing political dynamic persuades Clinton that the ticket needs some excitement, Castro is the safest exciting choice. In this way, he could be the ultimate beneficiary of the desire for sizzle stoked by Elizabeth Warren.
My pick? In order of likelihood, Kaine, then Castro, then Brown. If the nominee turns out to be someone I've never mentioned, even to discount, feel free to remind me.
But for real fun there's always the Republicans.
Donald Trump adds that extra dash of excitement that only self-absorption can provide. It's not every election year that the choice of a vice president turns, not on political calculations which can be fathomed by the normal mind, but on the daily oscillations of a profound personality disorder which are, to put it mildly, elusive -- perhaps even to Trump himself.
There is simply no book for handicapping the choices of major party candidate whose narcissism eclipses the historic competition. This elevates the risk of punditry from walking through a cow pasture to navigating a minefield. There is simply no telling when something will blow up.
Were Trump not so riveted by Trump himself, he would give the qualities required in a running mate the most considered thought. Republican insiders swear that he has. In this telling, and occasionally in Trump's, he knows that he needs a "governing choice" -- an experienced officeholder whose selection will help compensate for his own lack of, well, pretty much everything one might hope for in a president.
Given Trump, this is no small task. Sadly, those who might be up to it -- say George Washington or Abraham Lincoln -- are unavailable. And even were they at hand, who can say that the Donald would recognize their qualities as equal to his own?
However, just last week he exercised the kind of leadership he showed on The Apprentice -- he fired Corey Lewandowski. So let's assume that he chooses a running mate with Paul Manafort whispering in his ear, rather than looking in the mirror and seeing Jesse Ventura.
The initial problem, then, would not be who he chooses, but who won't run screaming into the night from imagining four years of subservience to Donald Trump. And then there is a related problem -- out of sheer self-respect, most credible prospects have been forced to utter some criticism of Trump. The Sun King, as we know, does not gratefully brook dissenters.
On both fronts, it would seem, John Kasich is disqualified. Even if Trump could overlook the fact that Kasich has yet to endorse them, the Ohio governor is just principled enough, and prickly enough, not to embarrass himself by running with a nominee so transcendently unfit.
More broadly, how many politicians with a future want to endure the shame and abuse of serving as second lieutenant on Trump's Titanic? Which opens up a frightening prospect -- bereft of respectable choices, Trump falls back on his own instincts and gives us -- God knows who.
By trade, I'm a novelist, and for years exercised my imagination for a living. But channeling Donald Trump is where the standard powers of invention flag. All I can do is deal with the more or less conventional choices which might flit, like fireflies, through the shadowy recesses of Trump's mind.
So let's dispatch a few of the wilder possibilities.
Marco Rubio? Despite the vehemence of his last-ditch attacks on Trump, Rubio has one indispensable qualification -- the political spine of a mollusk. But, ever ambitious, Rubio has reversed his supposedly ironclad pledge, and is running for reelection to the Senate.
Chris Christie? Last seen fetching Trump a hamburger, he has morphed from attack dog to lapdog -- standing next to his master, he has a glazed look of a former mastiff who has undergone a prefrontal lobotomy. This may be Trump's most astounding achievement -- shrinking Chris Christie. His poll numbers and New Jersey are shrinking, too. Put him down for Attorney General.
Rick Scott. I owe this speculation to reports that Florida's governor is on Trump's short list. But even mulling Scott pushes the swing state criteria to idiotic levels. In his prior life, Scott resigned as CEO of a health care company after it committed numerous felonies in over-billing the federal government. Not exactly the kind of business experience a dubious businessman would desire in a running mate.
Even as a parochial politician, Scott is mediocre -- not articulate, not very popular, and certainly not smart. One cringes to think of him set loose under the klieg lights of a national campaign. He adds little in Florida, and nothing outside its borders. At best a wasted pick; at worst a terrible one.
Female governors? Sounds good, until you start to think about them.
Mary Fallin? Her major distinction is that she is the climate change-denying governor of a bright red state, Oklahoma. Sarah Palin leaps to mind. Perhaps Fallin could help Trump a bit with white women of modest discernment. But she adds no weight to the ticket, and any of the Democratic prospects for vice president would murder her in debate.
Nikki Haley? Better, assuming that she would take it. But she, too, has not endured the rigors of national politics. And the experience of Sarah Palin has left the GOP terrified of the unknown.
Susanna Martinez? Better yet. But by excoriating Martinez in public, Trump blew his chances, proving only that he has the political and personal judgment of a deeply troubled toddler.
Any female at all? There's always Carly Fiorina, who would walk across a ground glass for the chance to run with anyone. Her gift for political venom is unimpeded by fact. But the claim that she and Trump combine stellar business acumen would founder on an unfortunate fact -- her business record, if possible, is even more execrable than his. So the fact that she has all the warmth of an anaconda is merely excess baggage.
Finally, John Thune. This one is a puzzler. The South Dakota senator is a conventional, presentable conservative, popular among his colleagues and, as politicians go, unassuming . Recently, his name has surfaced in Beltway speculation. But he would seem to have little in common with Trump, personally or ideologically. And unlike his senatorial colleagues, Bob Corker and Jeff Sessions, he is not known to have a relationship with The Donald.
In the past, Thune has pondered a run for president. Paying lip service to a narcissist while subordinating his own beliefs could well tarnish whatever national ambitions he still entertains. Given Trump's alternatives, Thune would certainly be a more than decent pick -- though Corker seems a better one. But from the perspective of either man, especially Thune, it's hard to see why Thune would become Trump's choice .
So who does this leave?
Newt Gingrich. Granted, this requires a certain flexibility in defining "conventional" -- if only because, between them, the two prospective running mates have been married six times. Here, again, age is a problem -- Gingrich is even older than the 70-year-old Trump. And if Trump is a Roman candle, the volatile Gingrich is at least a firecracker, likely to go off in your hand.
No doubt he is a fountain of inventiveness. Bob Dole used to joke that he kept two file cabinets in his office -- a tall one labeled "Newts idea's", and a much smaller one labeled "Newt's good ideas." Still, Gingrich is smart, articulate and ruthless in debate. Though he roundly criticized Trump's attack on Judge Curiel -- to Trump's explicit displeasure -- Gingrich would surely take the job. Which leads us to ponder questions of judgment and temperament which Donald Trump should avoid like Ebola.
Jeff Sessions. He is Trump's most faithful surrogate -- indeed, apologist. Which is to say that he personifies the word "pinhead": inarticulate, nativist, narrow-minded, reactionary and just plain dumb. Few senators are more lacking in stature. He's also short.
He would surely accept. Why not? But a Sessions choice would confirm the completeness of the disaster which is Trump -- a hitherto unthinkable reflection of Trump's need for craven adulation, and the absence of a more respectable running mate who was willing to feed it.
Which brings us to the insiders' current favorite, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. Colleagues like him. He looks like a senator. He's sane. Unlike Trump, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee he does not require an atlas to navigate the world. He's steady and self-disciplined. Overall he meets the criteria for a sober choice which would suggest that Trump comprehends, at least in passing, the unease created by his very being.
Unlike Sessions, Corker is not insensate -- a couple of weeks ago, he risked offending Trump by expressing dismay about his campaign. But, more recently, he compensated by expressing "excitement" when Trump materialized an actual rapid response team -- just like a normal candidate! This gift for overstimulation suggests a man who wants to be vice president -- one hesitates to envision Corker's rapture when Trump deigns to read from a prepared text.
No one imagines a President Corker, so this is his shot at national prominence. And no doubt the establishment types will implore him to step up for the sake of party and country -- not to mention the GOP's donor classes -- providing a fig leaf for his more personal ambitions.
The question is whether pros like Manafort can persuade Trump that Corker serves his best interests. Which, of course, requires Trump to endure the staggering self-abnegation of actually listening to someone else. Still, even a blind squirrel finds an acorn now and then. And if there was ever a candidate who can't afford to screw this up, it's Donald Trump.
My finalists? Corker, Gingrich, and Sessions -- in that order. And the implausibility of the latter two makes Corker look like Cincinnatus.
But put down John Kasich with an asterisk. If somehow the GOP's duennas manage to broker this shotgun marriage -- perhaps by assuring Kasich that Trump has six months to live -- Kasich has everything Trump could ask for: ordinary guy appeal, experience in Congress and as a governor, and a shot at taking Ohio. Everything save, perhaps, loyalty.
So who will become the 48th vice president of United States?
Tim Kaine. Thanks to Donald Trump, whoever Clinton chooses wins the lottery.
So what do you think, folks? It's your turn -- I don't want to be out on this limb alone.