Kerry's Smart Choice for VP

The Democratic ticket should include a running mate with character and experience

If the rule for picking a vice-presidential running mate—like the rule for modern medicine—is first, do no harm, I’ve got the perfect choice for Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass.: Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.

Of course, we all know that—for doctors and politicians alike—things are a lot more complicated than the Hippocratic Oath. A vast constellation of criteria looms before Kerry. He could pick The Hot Choice—the man or woman who would guarantee media acclaim; The Political Choice—the person who would achieve a balanced, multi-ethnic, multi-ideological and multi-gendered ticket; or even the The Pander-bear Choice—exciting his party base by throwing them a politician they love.

But, to me, The Smart Choice means focusing on the factors that really matter—having the courage to sacrifice a little July pizzazz in exchange for November results.

The Smart Choice could do the following things, in ascending order. He or she could carry a state: IBM Professor of Business and Government Roger B. Porter, who teaches Government 1540, “The American Presidency,” says modern vice-presidential candidates typically add about three percent to the ticket’s vote in their home state. Kerry’s ideal candidate, then, should come from a state that will swing on a few percentage points.

The Smart Choice could also be president. One way or another, about one in five vice presidents have become commander-in-chief. And, since Walter Mondale, all vice presidents have played a significant role in the political scene after their terms ended. In wartime, voters will only replace the incumbent if the alternative is ready to lead. A steady, experienced running mate could make change feel a bit less risky.

He or she could also reflect good qualities. Kerry’s choice—timed before the conventions and the debates—will be a sledgehammer to the wall separating Kerry and the voters. It will be the first major stage of the Democratic effort to define who this man is. Kerry’s pick will communicate the qualities and values that Kerry believes are most important—and that would ultimately define a Kerry presidency.

Finally, The Smart Choice should do no harm. Yes—despite everything else—this is still most important aspect of all. If a running mate has some dark secret in his past—a mistress, a felony, rehab—he will be a liability. Unless the choice is almost inhumanly scandal-free, nothing else matters. Senator Kerry, you could object to this rule, you could (rightly) argue that it drives many qualified, capable people out of public life. But ignore it at your peril.

Gephardt passes all these tests. President Bush carried Missouri in 2000—but by less than three percent. No one could seriously question Gephardt’s experience, competence or character—the former House Democratic leader could walk in the Oval Office and be president tomorrow. And the still-boyish 62-year-old carries all the controversy of a Hallmark card—not a smidgen of scandal in 30 years of public life. He is still one of the best-liked, most widely respected leaders of either party. Gephardt could match Vice President Cheney’s stature in a debate, and then beat him with an economic appeal to his fellow middle-class Midwesterners. More than that, Gephardt would make a superb vice president: a bridge to Congress, a leader on national security, a sounding board on the concerns of working Americans.

In the end, the old saying, “nobody votes for vice president,” will still hold true: This is the presidential candidates’ race to win or lose. But, then again, nothing is more presidential than recruiting a deputy who could be president too.

Brian M. Goldsmith ’05, a Crimson editorial comper, is a government concentrator in Lowell House.