- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2004

After conservative Republican Sen. John McCain rejected the entreaties of liberal Sen. John Kerry to join him on a bipartisan ticket as vice president, Mr. Kerry yesterday received an affirmative response from his second choice, John Edwards, the one-term Democratic senator from North Carolina who opposed him for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Interestingly, having espoused the boilerplate rhetoric that the most important qualification for a prospective running mate would be his or her fitness to immediately assume the duties of the commander in chief, Mr. Kerry selected the one candidate whose inexperience he ridiculed during the primaries. In a campaign in which the war on terrorism will play a major role, perhaps equally noteworthy is this fact: From a pool of 29 Senate Democrats who voted for the October 2002 Iraq war-authorization resolution, the 2004 Democratic ticket will now comprise two of the four war-authorization senators who a year later, succumbing to Democratic primary-season political pressure, voted against the $87 billion supplemental appropriation funding military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Apart from the rare example of Texas Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, whose presence on the 1960 ticket helped John Kennedy carry Texas, history reveals that vice presidential choices rarely make a major difference. And when they do, if more recent experience is any guide, their effect is more likely to be a drag on the ticket. The ill-fated, quickly reversed choice of Thomas Eagleton in 1972, for example, undoubtedly hindered George McGovern’s already-uphill challenge to President Nixon.

More recently, the not-ready-for-prime-time vice presidential candidacies of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sen. Dan Quayle in 1988 were both widely perceived, and accurately so, as detrimental to the their parties’ tickets. On the other hand, the 1988 election also confirmed the recent inability of vice presidential candidates to make a significantly positive contribution to the ticket. That year, moderate Texas Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen was selected as the Democratic running mate in part to balance the avowed liberalism of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Arguably one of the most well-received vice presidential candidates in post-World War II history who had the added benefit of scoring a TKO against Mr. Quayle in a debate, Mr. Bentsen nonetheless failed to bring along his home state. The Dukakis-Bentsen ticket lost Texas by nearly 700,000 votes despite the fact that Mr. Bentsen simultaneously won re-election to his Senate seat by more than 1 million votes.

The chief Dukakis-Bentsen lesson is that vice presidential candidates cannot be counted on to carry their home states unless those states are likely to vote that way in any event. Indeed, prior to the Democratic primaries last year, none other than John Kerry himself was overheard mocking Mr. Edwards’ presidential prospects by accurately observing that the North Carolina senator would be unlikely to carry his own state.

At the procedural level, a vice presidential candidate generally has three opportunities to showcase his talent. The first occurs during the “roll-out” week, which makes Mr. Edwards’ selection during the July 4th week, when millions of vacationing voters will be paying little heed to presidential politics, a bit curious. The convention speech by the vice presidential nominee offers the second opportunity. In this setting, Mr. Edwards will do well, given his appealing persona and the impressive campaign skills he displayed once the primaries began. The third opportunity will occur during the vice presidential debate. Here, Mr. Edwards’ lack of national-security and foreign-policy experience may be a vulnerability, although his demonstrated prowess as a hugely successful courtroom litigator testifies to his ability to perform well in such a venue.

For all of the intensity of the short-lived primary season, no amount of scrutiny Mr. Edwards has received to date will match the inspection he will receive during a national general-election campaign. The post-Eagleton vetting process will likely preclude the emergence of any skeletons in the closet. But as Mr. Edwards soon found out following his poor performance during his first “Meet the Press” appearance as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, any political shortcomings attributed to his relative inexperience will be exposed.

After a spotty start during the pre-primary season, Mr. Edwards eventually distinguished himself from the other candidates by brilliantly playing the class-warfare card during the Democratic primaries. Such an approach has been a perennial favorite of Democrats, who have often discovered to their political detriment that such a tactic does not play well during the general-election campaign. The same can be said for the protectionism that Mr. Edwards has so hardily embraced. If the U.S. economy continues to show strength, Mr. Edwards’ class-warfare approach and stalwart protectionism will likely fail to attract the support the ticket hopes to receive.

For his part, Mr. Kerry expects, undoubtedly correctly, that few voters will be adversely affected by the policy differences between him and his running mate that emerged during the primaries. After all, George H.W. Bush’s characterization of Ronald Reagan’s economic policies as “voodoo economics” during the 1980 primaries had no evident impact during the general election. On the other hand, given Mr. McCain’s demonstrated appeal to crucial independent voters, his gracious acceptance of a major role in President Bush’s re-election campaign will serve as a constant reminder to undecided voters that he rejected Mr. Kerry’s embrace in favor of the bearhugs he likely will be frequently sharing with Mr. Bush.

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