Calmes: The Trump veep guessing game is silly

DELAWARE, OH - APRIL 23: (L-R) Former President Donald Trump listens as J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, speaks during a rally hosted by the former president at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23, 2022 in Delaware, Ohio. Last week, Trump announced his endorsement of J.D. Vance in the Ohio Republican Senate primary. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The former president and Sen. J.D. Vance at campaign event in Ohio in April. Is Vance the choice for veep? (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

For all the conjecture and wishcasting about who or what could knock President Biden or Donald Trump out of the 2024 presidential race, their rematch was never much in doubt. Instead, in a measure of just how dispiriting the contest is, the only real question has been a relatively inconsequential one: Who will be Trump’s running mate?

That question should be: Who would want to be his running mate? Trump, after all, rewarded former Vice President Mike Pence for his four years of emasculating sycophancy by abandoning him to the mercies of the mob that wanted to hang Pence on Jan. 6, 2021, and telling an advisor, “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” Pence, in a rebuke of his own, says he won’t vote for “anyone that puts themselves over the Constitution.”

Pence’s sorry treatment at Trump’s hands apparently is no turnoff, however, for ambitious Republicans coveting proximity to power and possession of Air Force Two, should Trump be elected again. There is no shortage of veep wannabes for the disgraced former president to choose from.

And there’s no shortage of press guessing either. The quadrennial veepstakes speculation has been revving up and will go into overdrive over the next month, given Trump’s talk that he’ll wait to name his choice at the Republican National Convention in mid-July. “I have sort of a pretty good idea,” he teased Fox News on Thursday, and media speculators lately are betting on Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio, Marco Rubio of Florida or North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum — MAGA men all, easily meeting the job requirement of being duly obsequious.

The whole speculative exercise is silly and always has been. For evidence, consider how often reporters and pundits have been surprised over the past half-century.

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In August 1988, I was huddled with other Washington reporters around a newsroom TV to watch George H.W. Bush unveil his vice presidential pick. To our shock, and nearly every pundit’s as well, he named the boyish Sen. Dan Quayle. “Bush not only didn’t name the best senator,” a co-worker exclaimed, “he didn’t name the best senator from Indiana!” (That was Richard Lugar).

Bush himself was something of a surprise VP choice when Ronald Reagan tapped him at the 1980 Republican convention, given the two men’s poisonous rivalry for the nomination. Reagan landed on Bush only after Reagan failed in his bid to produce a stunner for the ages: a supposed “dream ticket” with former President Gerald R. Ford in the vice presidential slot, promising a sort of co-presidency if they won.

In 1984 virtually no media types who tried to anticipate Walter Mondale’s Democratic running mate had among their top bets the relatively obscure Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York, but Mondale made her the first woman on a major-party presidential ticket. Because presidential candidates typically look for a partner who complements them — say, by their age, region or experience — Bill Clinton in 1992 pulled a fast one by selecting Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, a fellow southerner, boomer and moderate Democrat.

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Eight years later, when Gore was Democrats’ 2000 standard bearer, few journalists had Connecticut’s Sen. Joe Lieberman as a leading contender, but he became the first Jewish nominee on a major-party ticket. The big-time stumper that year, however, was on the Republican side: George W. Bush passed over the prospects that advisor Dick Cheney was vetting and tapped Cheney himself.

John McCain, needing to jump-start his 2008 campaign, brushed aside prominent Republican governors and senators that journalists (and McCain advisors) were promoting as veep contenders and settled for shock value on novice Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. “Sarah who?” was the near-universal reaction. America sure found out.

The thing is, the only person who actually knows the choice for No. 2 is No. 1. And No. 1 can and often does reconsider.

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That’s especially true when we’re talking about the ever-erratic Trump, who considers himself his own best strategist. He appears to approach the veep selection like a reality show episode, weighing whether would-be apprentices are out of “central casting” (but not so much as to outshine the star of the show) and how to stoke suspense for the finale.

Trump would probably like nothing better than to foil the media guessing game, and even his advisors’ script, and spring a last-minute twist. Heck, not being a dog lover, he might even give the nod to Kristi Noem. The South Dakota governor was considered a prime prospect until last month, when she was written off after she copped to executing Cricket, the family dog.

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In 2016, Pence, Trump’s opposite in just about every way, didn’t dominate in the speculation but complemented the presidential candidate well. For the thrice-married former casino mogul, obsessed then with winning over evangelical voters, the pious Pence was just the partner Trump needed. In a signal of how he’d hire and fire as president, he announced the Pence pick in a tweet.

Trump no longer needs help getting evangelicals’ support. This time he’s said to be interested in Black men’s support, and perhaps snatching more of it from Biden by picking, say, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida or Ben Carson, his former Housing secretary.

Who knows? Only Trump.

But that won’t stop us from speculating. It never has.


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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.