POLITICS

What We Talk About When We Won't Shut Up About Vice Presidential Speculation

This media obsession is mostly performance art -- but with a dash of hopefulness.
Some in the media are saying that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has a "95 percent" chance of being Donald Trump's running mate, wha
Some in the media are saying that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has a "95 percent" chance of being Donald Trump's running mate, whatever that means.

Sometime very soon, we’re going to find out if Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin was correct when he predicted that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton would name “a prominent Republican” to be her vice president. This would be a staggeringly strange thing for Clinton to do, given a couple simple facts: First of all, the role of the vice president is to serve as the chief executive in the event of the president’s death or incapacitation, and secondly, the Democratic Party establishment will probably prefer this running mate be a Democrat, the better to keep doing Democratic party stuff should something terrible occur.

So Halperin’s prediction ― which he’s famously based on “instinct and a little bit of reporting” ― is likely to come to naught, just like his 2012 hunch that Mitt Romney would choose Ohio Sen. Rob Portman as his running mate, and his 2008 conjecture that Barack Obama would name Indiana Republican Sen. Dick Lugar as his.

But I’m not here to bury Mark Halperin, because let’s face it, he is hardly alone in the world of outlandish vice presidential augury. Throughout the run-up to the 2012 election, supposedly serious people traded in speculation that Obama would kick Joe Biden off the ticket in favor of Hillary Clinton, because people at Beltway cocktail parties were talking about it. In 2004, the New York Post ― billing it as an “exclusive” ― announced on the cover of its tabloid that Democratic nominee John Kerry had definitely picked Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt as his running mate, when he’d actually picked North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. ("We unreservedly apologize for our mistake,” said Post editor Col Allan, no doubt ruing the missed opportunity to just run something racist in the front of his broadsheet.)

Heck, I will confess to you that I once said Mitt Romney was going to choose New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte as his vice president. I went on to provide a list of reasons why, speaking out loud and with real intensity. I don’t know what possessed me to assemble an argument for Ayotte’s candidacy. It was like an odd dream I’d had ― a dream that ended when I came to find out that the Romney campaign’s internal nickname for Ayotte was “the energy vampire.”

Why do we bother making ornate vice presidential prognostications? What would have been lost if the New York Post had just waited a few more hours to run its story? What benefit is there to being right in making a projection about such a low-stakes matter? Is it all about that little burst of brain-chemical cocktail that races into our veins when we perceive ourselves to be on the razor’s edge of political prognostication? Because it can feel really good in the moment, when we are cogitating on the matter. Later, however, it becomes one of those things we in which we regret having indulged.

The reason I’m wondering about this is because right now, the media is fixated on who presumptive GOP nominee and detached Kuato Donald Trump might choose as his vice president. Over the past few weeks, the presumed apple of Trump’s eye has shifted to one person or another. At one point last week, Newt Gingrich was the presumed favorite. For a brief, mad moment, some guy named Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn was said to be in, like his last name. And while Trump is bad at most aspects of campaigning, he is really, really good at playing a media that’s seething to know who he’ll pick as his partner in (probably actual) crime:

You’ll likely encounter headlines like this in the wild: “Report: ‘95 percent probability’ of Pence as Trump VP.” Where does that come from? Well, this story exists because the Washington Times got a convention delegate named James Bopp on the record, and he assigned that probability to Trump picking Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate based on an abrupt change in Trump’s schedule and the fact that Indiana’s House Speaker, Brian Bosma, hit him up for advice on running for governor. In essence, this is based on multiple layers of some random person’s presumptions.

Really, this “95 percent probability” number is just one man’s 50-50 crapshoot combined with a healthy dash of bravado. It could be correct, or not, and there are plenty of opinions one way or the other. Which is probably the whole point: All that we in the media ask of the world is to be given a bright, shiny ball with which to play, to be replaced with a brighter, shinier ball the minute it seems we might get bored.

Let’s face it, vice presidential speculation wouldn’t exist if those of us in the political media weren’t in a mad dash to put on the best display of performative savviness ― and the veepstakes squarely hit the sweet spot where pseudo-intellectual posturing and impossibly low stakes squarely intersect. We know that being correct will earn us a tiny gold star, while our harmless cock-ups will be quickly forgotten.

Typically, when we begin the veepstakes season, we like to form lists of potential candidates that are designed to demonstrate that we’re fully in tune with polite unanimity, but also stylishly daring. This allows us to have polite panel discussions where we all basically agree while also having a moment to bask in the depth of our super-substantial thoughts.

Basically, we talk about potential V.P. candidates the way armchair movie critics talk about the Coen Brothers’ filmography: 

See, we all agree with each other on the consensus picks ― those sturdy elders and zazzy up-and-comers that Beltway wags fixate on as potential ticket-fillers at the nascent stage of the presidential primary, as well as the occasional primary loser who nevertheless showed a little vice presidential potential. But we also have a vested interest in showing off just how knowledgable we are about arcana, and how we have great command of the obscure. 

Along the way, we trade in folk wisdom about vice presidents. Maybe some governor could help the candidate pick up a swing state’s electoral votes! Maybe a general, or a businessman, could fill in the nominee’s knowledge gap. Perhaps what the candidate needs is a vibrant dash of racial or gender diversity! We stroke our chins over these and other magic criteria, bound in the belief that somewhere out there exists a rug that will bring the whole room together. We cling to these beliefs against the urgings of political scientists reminding us that they are mostly bullshit. And these beliefs persist in spite of the fact that over and over again, they don’t bear fruit.

And that is, perhaps, the most ironic thing about our obsession with vice presidential contenders. Once the candidate is named and they’re out hustling, we discover they are only really intriguing when they fail. We notice when they don’t deliver their home state’s votes, when their super-specific cache of knowledge pales in comparison to their overall lack of depth, and ― yes ― when they single-handedly decimate the last hopes of Sen. John McCain. That’s when they are interesting.

What’s more, for all of our talk, we would never in a million years credit the vice presidential candidate for the success of his or her ticket. It just doesn’t happen. We’re all too drunk on Great Man Theory, the broad sweep of capital-H History, and all those enduring myths about Great Communicators and Fireside Chatters to ever rob a victorious presidential candidate of the credit. No one in their right mind would contend that Barack Obama won two elections because of something Joe Biden did. 

And yet, here’s the thing about all this time we spend picking through bird entrails in an attempt to divine a candidates’ help-mates: It might be one of the least cynical activities in which the people who cover politics engage. It’s definitely one of the only times we aren’t wholly fiending on failure and inadequacy like hopped-up schadenfreude junkies. At the root of our obsession lies a naive belief that there’s someone out there who can fill in all the gaps, square all the circles, and knit up the ragged hem of the weird egomaniacs who believe they deserve to run the free world.

So dream those dizzy dreams, Mark Halperin. And keep a little hope alive that there might be some player-to-be-named who can arrive on the scene to lend coherence to the election season spectacle. Here in 2016’s presidential cycle, which often feels like the final season of a television series that’s gone way off the rails, we need to cling to these beliefs as long as we can, especially now that we’ve got a funny feeling about what’s to come.

Sorry, Mike Pence! (Maybe?)

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Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.