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Vetting a vice presidential candidate | COMMENTARY

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event, Tuesday, July 14, in Wilmington, Delaware.
Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event, Tuesday, July 14, in Wilmington, Delaware. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

It is Veepstakes season. Will Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden choose a well-known running mate or make a surprise pick? Will he choose a woman of color? Appeal to the Bernie Sanders bloc? Or will he make the electoral map play and pick someone from a swing state like Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or Florida Congresswoman Val Demings?

Overlooked in all the calculations is a simple point: a careful, thorough vetting of the finalists is critical to avoid any surprises that might detract from the main event between Mr. Biden and President Donald Trump. A candidate’s choice of a vice presidential running mate often gives voters an initial glimpse into a potential presidency. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But it had better not be a disaster.

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Previous vice presidential choices suggest that careful vetting may be even more important than finding the ideological or geographic sweet spot. Sarah Palin’s selection in 2008 is the most recent cautionary tale about a rushed VP choice. Her lack of curiosity in basic policy matters — or knowledge of recent events generally — and messy home life should have been red flags for the McCain campaign.

Before Ms. Palin, there was Geraldine Ferraro. More accomplished than Ms. Palin, Ferraro deserved to be taken seriously. From New York, after six years in the House of Representatives, she was a rising star when Walter Mondale made history by selecting her in 1984 to be the first woman on a major party ticket. But poor vetting of Ferraro’s finances (and of her husband John Zaccaro) led to disclosures about back taxes and shady financing of Ferraro’s congressional campaigns. The Democratic ticket lost to Ronald Reagan by historic margins.

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George McGovern’s uphill fight in 1972 to defeat Richard Nixon became much more difficult with a selection process that rivaled the McCain/Palin ticket for the embarrassment it caused the campaign. McGovern was made to look frighteningly unprepared for the White House when it was revealed that his VP choice, Senator Thomas Eagleton, had received electric shock treatments to deal with depression. This was news to McGovern who then made matters worse by initially backing Eagleton “1,000%” only to then request his withdrawal.

Even in successful campaigns, sloppy background work can nearly undo years of careful planning. Our book on Spiro Agnew as Richard Nixon’s choice in 1968 offers a case in point. Marylanders will remember that Agnew had served less than two years as governor when Nixon put him on the Republican ticket in 1968. Agnew, like Ms. Palin, was largely unknown. A surprising number of people thought that a “Spiro Agnew” was some sort of shellfish. Agnew made numerous flubs on the campaign trail (“if you have seen one slum, you’ve seen them all”). Democrats responded by running “Agnew for Vice President?” television ads with a laugh track and the tag line, “This would be funny if it weren’t so serious.”

Political analysts from the time concluded that the inexperienced Agnew’s gaffes almost cost Nixon the election. Nixon should have known better. He was still a young (39) U.S. senator when Dwight Eisenhower chose him in 1952. In an age before careful vetting, the choice nearly derailed the campaign. Accused of using a private “millionaires’ club” slush fund to cover political expenses, Nixon aired a televised accounting of his “modest means” that included the famous family puppy, Checkers. It saved his place on the ticket, but the entire episode undermined Ike’s aura of rectitude.

Signs from the Biden campaign indicate an early August announcement. This is wise. There is no rush and despite the competing theories about choosing a VP nominee, the selection process is not an exact science. His selection committee of course needs to make certain the choice is capable of assuming the awesome responsibilities of the office. But they also need to take a deep breath and make sure that Joe Biden knows exactly who he is getting.

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“No surprises” should be the guiding principle in making the final choice. With a COVID-ravaged economy, spiking positive test numbers and a preventable death toll that has already more than doubled the number of American fatalities in Vietnam, the Trump presidency may be staggering to its inglorious end. The polls right now suggest as much. Nothing, certainly not an errant VP choice, can be allowed to distract voters’ focus away from the key decision in November: do Americans want four more years of Donald Trump or not?

Charles J. Holden (cjholden@smcm.edu) is professor of history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland; Zach Messitte (messittez@ripon.edu) is president of Ripon College and professor of politics and government; Jerald Podair (Jerald.podair@lawrence.edu) is a professor of history and the Robert S. French Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University (Wisconsin). The title of their book is “Republican Populist: Spiro Agnew and the Origins of Donald Trump’s America” (University of Virginia Press).

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