Donald Trump has given Hillary Clinton a number of small gifts in the early days of their head-to-head battle for the presidency. Taking eminently mockable policy positions, appearing uninterested in the actual work of running and funding a serious campaign, and being bad at it when he decides to try it are just a few.
The cumulative effect of these and other weaknesses in Trump’s candidacy may be enough to grant the former secretary of state one additional present -- the ability to choose the running mate she wants rather than the running mate she needs. Clinton aides suggested as much to CNN just yesterday, saying it has even become less important for her to explicitly court supporters of her closest rival for the nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, with her choice.
The process of choosing a vice presidential candidate is always cloaked in mystery. It happens, for the most part, completely behind closed doors, and the ultimate choice is usually the result of a Moneyball-type calculation that treats fitness for the job as just one of the criteria.
There’s plenty of evidence of vice-presidential candidates chosen not because the person at the top of the ticket thought they would be the best person to take over the Oval Office but because he or she might serve the much more short-term goal of getting to the Oval Office in the first place.
Is there anyone who believes that Sen. John McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 because he thought she was the best person in the country to put one heartbeat away from the presidency? Well, it’s a big world, so somebody probably does. But they’re wrong.
Palin, like many before her, was picked in a purely political calculation meant to shore up the McCain campaign. That’s why many have assumed that Clinton would look for a running mate who expressly appeals to the far-left element of the party – people who supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary elections.
But things have changed.
Trump appears to have strengthened the Democrats’ hold on many of their core states while loosening the Republicans’ grip on traditional battleground states. This suggests that Clinton has the rare chance as a major party presidential candidate to choose the person she wants as a vice president based primarily on that person’s ability to do the job and his or her fitness to step into the Oval Office if necessary.
“I think that’s right,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“If the presumptive Republican nominee were stronger, Clinton’s considerations might be different. She already may be inclined to make a selection that was appealing to the Sanders camp, but she probably has less pressure to satisfy the Sanders backers because she’s already leading and Sanders is still in the race.”
That said, he added, “Clinton has a lot of incentive to simply play it safe right now, and I’ve always thought the first rule of VP selection mimics the so-called Hippocratic Oath: ‘First, do no harm.’ That rule may end up looming large in Clinton’s decision.”