President Mark D. Gearan was recently quoted in an article published by the news outlet Politico. The article, “Vice president hopefuls play the name game,” speculates on the bids for the upcoming vice presidential nominations – equating the secretive and sensitive process to the political Oscars.
Having served in the Clinton administration as Assistant to the President and Director of Communications, as well as Deputy Chief of Staff, Gearan played a major role in running President Bill Clinton’s running mate selection process.
Politico quotes Gearan: “By 1992, there was great sensitivity to not putting the potential candidates in an exposed position,” said Gearan.
Gearan recalled renting a suite at the Capitol Hilton in downtown Washington under his wife’s name and having vice presidential prospects use the hotel freight elevator to be discrete. Al Gore himself was brought for an interview at 11 p.m. “We tried to do it in a more clandestine way,” said Gearan.
The full article follows.
Vice president hopefuls play the name game
Jonathan Martin • July 2, 2012
The vice-presidential selection process is not merely the act of each nominee picking a running mate. It’s also the political equivalent of the Oscars.
Just as aspiring movie stars covet being among the nominees for cinema’s ultimate prize, ambitious politicians want to have their names on the oft-repeated list of potential vice presidents. Getting on the ticket is the ultimate goal, but even being a finalist – or convincing the media you were a finalist even if you weren’t – brings benefits, too.
The veepstakes has long been a a clinic in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) self-aggrandizement. But in recent years,the process has morphed into an open exercise in cautious but unmistakable résumé buffing. Politicians, their staffs and supporters quietly jockey to be among the mentioned in hopes of drawing media attention, better fundraising and a wider following that will aid future attempts at higher office. For at least a few years, the not-chosen few will invariably be deemed as “short-listers” or similar shorthand to denote their runner-up status.
This is why supporters of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) were so furious when ABC reported earlier this month that he had not been asked by Mitt Romney’s campaign for any documents – it was the opposite of what usually happens and a slap at an up-and-comer with a golden biography. That Romney would then violate his own rule about discussing the process and assure the political world that Rubio is being looked at speaks to the young Cuban-American’s unique role in the GOP.
Because presidential nominees have become strict about staying mum about all aspects of the process and the media are so hungry to sniff out the list, would-be prospects have virtually unchecked power on getting their names in the mix – e ven if they’re not actually being considered.
“As you get further way from the people who are really being considered you find folks who do stupid things,” explained longtime Democratic insider William Daley, who played a key role in Al Gore’s 2000 search for a running mate.
Or as Bob Shrum, another veteran of Democratic White House campaigns, put it, “The whole nature of the process now makes it possible for people to get floated who are only floating on air and not in reality.”
Take House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. In 2008, he was a rising Republican star but still just the chief deputy whip of the House minority. But he got a burst of attention in August when The Associated Press reported that John McCain’s presidential campaign had asked him to turn over documents. Other news outlets, including POLITICO, quickly followed the news, reporting that Cantor was being looked at as a potential running mate.
This was the source of great bemusement to senior McCain officials.
“I remember seeing that story and laughing,” a top McCain aide recalled last week, the memory still fresh after four years. “To my recollection, [Cantor] wasn’t even on the public document list.” That’s to say, McCain’s vetters didn’t do a thorough search of news stories on Cantor, let alone ask him for personal information.
But that didn’t stop enthusiastic Cantor backers, who were determined to get his name among the mentioned. A longtime GOP strategist with deep connections to the party’s fundraising community said that a major, New York-based Republican donor actually launched a behind-the-scenes campaign to gin up buzz about a McCain-Cantor ticket.
Asked about the 2008 reports that Cantor was vetted and the effort to get him among the mentioned, Cantor spokesman Doug Heye declined to comment.
What enables the empty float is the lengths presidential campaigns now go to keep almost all elements of the search a secret. Political veterans date the cloak-and-dagger routine to the 1984 presidential campaign when nominee Walter Mondale had a parade of potential veeps tromp up his driveway in suburban Minneapolis, in full view of a camped-out press corps. The “Noah’s Ark procession to North Oaks,” as columnists Evans and Novak dubbed it, was subsequently seen as too open and unfair to the aspirants.
“By 1992, there was great sensitivity to not putting the potential candidates in an exposed position,” said Mark Gearan, who helped run Bill Clinton’s running mate selection and ultimately headed Al Gore’s vice presidential campaign operation that year.
Gearan recalled renting a suite at the Capitol Hilton in downtown Washington under his wife’s name and spiriting vice-presidential prospects up through a hotel freight elevator. Gore himself was brought for an interview at 11 – at night. “We tried to do it in a more clandestine way,” said Gearan.
This hush-hush system has become the rule, and the running mate prospects are now judged not just on their qualifications for the job but also on their discretion.
“It was pretty clear how distasteful the then-governor would have found [open campaigning],” said Joe Allbaugh, George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign honcho. “They knew it would’ve resulted in immediate ex-communication.”
This is a far cry from the day when vice-presidential hopefuls would openly, if lightheartedly, make their case for the job.
In the days before George H.W. Bush tapped Dan Quayle in 1988, two also-rans were captured in The New York Times campaigning in ways that would be unthinkable today.
“I would be a terrific campaigner and a terrific candidate and a terrific vice president,” said then-Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) The former NFL athlete added: “I was a good second-string quarterback.”
Bob Dole, then the Senate GOP leader, rattled off his merits in his typical shorthand: “Someone who can get him elected, first. Secondly, someone who can help him after he is elected – someone like myself. I know Congress fairly well. And probably most important, someone who could be president.” Dole jokingly added: “I left a message on my machine at home – it says, ‘I accept.’ “
Now, potential vice presidents and their staffs will only do their lobbying privately or strictly off-the-record with reporters, ticking off their assets and their rivals’ shortcomings. In the modern vice-presidential kabuki dance, it’s not just bad form but potentially disqualifying to publicly campaign for the job.
“The invisible campaign that takes place around the process has changed because folks realize that if they’re a serious contender they can very quickly become disqualified by demonstrating the lack of discipline that can make them ill-suited for office,” said Michael Feldman, an aide on Gore’s 2000 campaign.
But that rule applies only to those individuals actually in the running.
“There’s nothing to stop you from floating yourself unless you think you may actually be considered,” is how Feldman put it.
Lee Hamilton, the Democratic elder and former House member from Indiana, learned that lesson the hard way in 1992 when he talked to reporters about having just met with then-Gov. Bill Clinton.
“I’ve been impressed that Gov. Clinton is a fast learner and seems to have a very sure grasp of foreign policy questions,” Hamilton, a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee said. “I’ve spent a good bit of my time on that, and I hope I would be of some benefit to him.”
“The list was immediately reduced by one,” said a senior Clinton aide on that campaign. “Hamilton was never discussed again.”
In some cases, being among the mentioned may even be just as good to actually being selected. Just ask Joe Lieberman and John Edwards. Losing vice-presidential candidates have had no luck attempting to parlay a spot on the ticket in one cycle into a winning campaign down the line.
“I think Romney did better by being passed over in ’08,” said Paul Begala, the longtime Democratic consultant. “If McCain had chosen him, they still would’ve lost. And some of the blame would have fallen to Romney because he would’ve made a couple of mistakes along the way.”
But being revealed as a runner-up is hardly the only vehicle to get attention in the veep game. There’s also the “you can’t fire me, I quit” technique, best demonstrated by then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in 2004.
This is the move in which a would-be vice-presidential nominee publicly pulls out of the selection process, typically citing their undying commitment to their state or district.
In 2004, Richardson penned a literal “Dear John” letter to Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) explaining that he promised his state to serve a full term as governor.
Doing so got Richardson a bit of attention and prevented him from being seen as passed over, thereby retaining his standing for a future run.
The truth of the matter?
“Richardson went partly through the vet, but he didn’t want to go through the rest of it,” said Shrum, a top Kerry official in 2004. “He just wanted everybody to think he was being considered.”
The New Mexican is still renowned in Democratic political circles for his efforts to appear on shortlists.
“Richardson was trying to get on there,” Daley recalled of the 2000 campaign.
Then-Michigan Gov. John Engler was more subtle in his efforts to get in Dole’s good graces in 1996.
“I distinctly remember meeting Engler in a holding room in some godforsaken Holiday Inn and he was wearing a tie with a Kansas sunflower on it,” recalled a Dole aide that year. “He was pulling out all the stops.”
There are, it should be noted, cases in which politicians do discreetly opt out of the vetting process because they actually don’t want the job. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal quietly informed the McCain high command in 2008, for example, that he didn’t want to be vetted, according to a top McCain official from that campaign.
There are also examples of pols whose shortlisting helped them in subsequent cycles, such as John Kerry, a Gore bridesmaid in 2000 who got the top spot in 2004, and Tim Pawlenty, who has a real shot at being Romney’s running mate after having run a presidential campaign of his own.
And in fairness to those ambitious politicians who are happy to have their names mentioned even if they’re not truly being considered – they aren’t the only ones who benefit from strategic floats.
The campaigns will at times put out word that they’re looking at a prospect in order to appeal to a constituency. Gore said in 2000 that his final six options included then-New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in part because he was assessing her but also because he wanted to have a woman in the mix, according to sources from the campaign.
Being on the list is no guarantee of success. Some Democrats point to former Florida senator Bob Graham, who was mentioned as a potential Gore running mate in 2000 but damaged amid reports that he obsessively recorded his minute-by-minute doings every day in a journal. Graham didn’t make it onto Gore’s final list and the Floridian’s own presidential campaign in 2004 flopped. And then there’s former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, who was a bridesmaid in three consecutive cycles – 2000, 2004 and 2008 – before deciding to retire from politics in 2010.
But the Bayh example won’t dissuade another host of Republican officeholders and their hard-charging aides from trying to make the list once again this year. Few will go out of their way to fully rule themselves out
As Kemp said in 1996 when he asked to do so: “You don’t turn down something for which you have not been asked. Would you date Sharon Stone?”