It’s hard to find the right running mate. And it’s especially hard for a Democrat right now: George W. Bush has a Palm Pilot filled with intriguing candidates—from Colin Powell to congressional standouts like Chuck Hagel and big state governors like Tom Ridge. By contrast, the Democrats’ little black book looks awfully thin. Some of the party’s brightest stars were killed off in the purge of ’94. And Gore’s political papa, Bill Clinton, is such a scene stealer that the next generation has hardly had a chance to get noticed.
We’d like to see Al Gore happily married, so enough already with the excuses: Al can’t run unless he makes a match and, despite all the handwringing, we can think of a number of very attractive possibilities. To help him get excited about popping the question, we asked a few friends of the Monthly to describe some of the most promising possibilities who are just a bit off the beaten track. We like them all—and, most important, we think that any one of them could make Al a very happy man.
By choosing former Georgia governor Zell Miller as his running mate, Al Gore could add intellectual brainpower, rhetorical firepower, and lots of plain old populist piss-and-vinegar to this staid election.
Miller is widely and rightly acclaimed as the best governor in Georgia history. He created the HOPE scholarship—dedicating the proceeds from the Georgia lottery to college scholarships. Rather than a something-for-nothing giveaway, Miller insisted only students with a B average could get the college aid. That single accomplishment has transformed his state.
Ninety-seven percent of incoming freshmen at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech are HOPE scholars, and the promise of a free education has kept the best and the brightest from fleeing to the Ivy League. Minority enrollment jumped from 18 percent of the total student population to 21 percent. And across the state, educators are reporting that parents are more engaged than ever in their children’s education, because Junior’s B average means they save thousands of dollars in college costs.
And for students who cannot keep a B average or decide not to go to college, HOPE will pay for community college or technical school. The goal is to assure every young person a shot at the American Dream.
But HOPE is only the beginning. As Governor, Miller championed a tough on crime “Two Strikes and You’re Out” law to lock up repeat violent felons. He reformed welfare and made Georgia one of the top two in state-funded research and development.
Miller’s substantive record of accomplishment as governor would stand in stark contrast to the Pablum record of Gov. George W. Bush. Other than laughing about executing women and giving sanctimonious sermons, Bush has spent his time as governor raising money and running for president. Like Bush, Miller is a rabid baseball fan. But while Bush has been the Mario Mendoza of governors, Miller has been the Hank Aaron.
Lest you think this New Democrat is nothing more than an old Republican, you should know that Zell Miller devoted a year of his governorship to the battle to remove the racist symbol of segregation from the Georgia state flag. His courage nearly cost him re-election. But the former history teacher knew full well what Faulkner said of his beloved South: There the past is not dead; it’s not even past.
Here again, the contrast would be terrific. Juxtapose the footage of Bush sucking up to the racists in South Carolina, bowing and scraping at Bob Jones University, with images of Miller standing strong against the bigots.
Miller would bring to the ticket a compelling personal story. In an election in which the final four candidates were the sons of a bank president, an admiral, a senator, and a president, Zell Miller was the son of a teacher—a teacher who died when Miller was just two weeks old. Raised by his mother in Appalachia, in a rock house she built herself, Miller found his focus in the United States Marine Corps, and his unabashed patriotism, combined with his down-home populism, makes him an American classic.
Zell Miller is also a world-class campaigner and orator. His keynote address to the 1992 Democratic convention ranks with Barbara Jordan’s and Mario Cuomo’s as one of the finest examples of powerful rhetoric and partisan passion.
At a time when politics seems moribund, Zell would bring energy. When people are looking for heroes, Zell’s the real thing. And when Democrats need someone who’s not afraid to open up a can of whup-ass on the radical right, they need look no further than Zell Miller.
James Carville, a pamphleteer and a provocateur, and Paul Begala, a professor at Georgetown and a pundit, were previously; political consultants for Bill Clinton and Zell Miller.
Talk about implausible. My fellow TV blowhards look at me with pity when I suggest that New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman would be the best candidate. And they’re right that there’s almost zero chance Gore would ask her; it would piss off the Democrats too much.
But if he really wants to win, he should choose her. The country is moving into a post-partisan period, even if the politicians aren’t. In one swoop, picking Whitman would make Gore much more appealing to independents (he trails Bush among them) and make sure that the gender gap stayed open. Whitman on the Democratic ticket would be a loud message to the voters that the Republican Party is irredeemably right-wing and hopeless on a woman’s right to choose. In New Jersey, she has governed six years essentially as a New Democrat, closer ideologically to Gore than to Bush.
Whitman is unacceptable on the GOP ticket because she supports so-called partial birth abortion—a total deal-breaker for Bush because it would cause a walkout at the convention. She might turn Gore down—she has already endorsed Bush—but having decided she’s not running for Senate, what else is she going to do with her life? The argument that she has no future in Republican politics if she did this makes no sense, because she has no future in that party anyway. When it comes down to it, few politicians refuse the chance when asked. Come on, Al. Be really bold.
Political devolution has brought stardom to many Republicans at the state and local level. Regional officials with national marquee value include Rudy Giuliani, Stephen Goldsmith, Tommy Thompson, and the Brothers Bush. But what many people don’t know is that John Norquist, the Democratic Mayor of Milwaukee, has a record that beats all of these guys. Recently elected to his fourth term, Norquist is in the top tier of a class of New Democrats who got a big political boost when Clinton was elected in 1992. That year, Clinton chose a running mate who would reinforce his own image: smart, wonky, moderate. Gore should follow the same strategy and put John Norquist on the ticket.
Norquist is most admired for his successes in educational reform. Milwaukee became a prime testing ground for school choice when Norquist pushed through a plan that permits public funds to pay for private and religious schools. There’s already evidence that the plan is working. Since the reforms, Milwaukee kids are doing better on standardized tests—with minority groups showing particular improvement. And while reform remains a contentious issue, Norquist continues to rack up impressive victories. When Milwaukee held school board elections last April, the Mayor’s favorite candidates swept all of the teachers’ union’s candidates and gave the reformers a majority on the board.
He also knows how to run a government. In his time at Milwaukee’s helm, Norquist streamlined the city bureaucracy, made the delivery of social services like snow plowing and garbage collection more efficient, and turned deficits into surpluses. At the same time, he has managed to cut taxes almost every year that he’s been in office in an effort to halt middle-class flight to the suburbs. This has been successful, as more middle-class families are now moving into Milwaukee’s reinvigorated downtown. And he has done this while preaching the gospel of urban independence from Washington and decrying the mentality of “tin cup federalism.” (To his credit, Norquist is equally tough on businesses and has been highly critical of companies that try to stick their snouts in the government trough by demanding municipal subsidies). This is just the kind of track record that could help Al Gore neutralize George W. Bush’s claim to be a “reformer with results.” As University of Wisconsin political scientist Donald Kettl points out: “Norquist is a reformer with results, with more results to show.”
To be sure, Norquist comes with political baggage. For one thing, the Gore camp is bound to be uneasy about Norquist’s frosty relationship with the teachers’ unions. Those unions are 3.5 million strong, claim one seventh of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention, and have been stalwart Gore supporters throughout his campaign. Both Norquist’s policies and his attacks on the “public school monopoly” have done little to ingratiate him with the Our Miss Brooks set. In addition, some Milwaukee minority leaders argue that in his efforts to boost the middle class and business presence downtown, he has paid little attention to trying to increase investment in the city’s poorer areas. This has angered some of Milwaukee’s black community, and Norquist’s electoral support among minorities has decreased since he was first elected in 1988.
But the key political fact about Norquist is that he’s something of a maverick. According to David Meissner of the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum, “John has challenged the stereotypical philosophies of the party. He is a cage rattler.” And this may well be the most compelling reason for Gore to choose him as his running mate. Putting John Norquist on the ticket would send a strong signal that the Gore administration will be open to smart people and new ideas—even when they may be out of step with the party rank and file. Consider it the ultimate Sister Souljah move.
He’s smart and he’s rich. He knows Wall Street and Washington. He helped build the longest economic boom on record. Even Republicans revere him. Yet the real reason Al Gore should pick Bob Rubin to be his vice president goes beyond the obvious: He’s the one man in America who can make the world safe again for liberalism.
Why? Start with Rubin’s temperament. Sure, he’s cagey, or he couldn’t have run Goldman Sachs or wowed them up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet the man carries himself humbly. When I worked for Clinton in the early years, staffers loved to imitate the soft-spoken preface Rubin invariably offered in economic policy meetings. “Well, it’s just one man’s opinion,” he would stammer, or, “I’m hardly an expert on this, but … ” From a man of his stature, this brand of modesty, even if an act, set a tone that made it easier for high-powered egos to share credit and get things done. And if Rubin was sincere, why, so much the better: That’s just the kind of mind you want near the helm in a fast-changing world.
Then there’s Rubin’s hyperrational, “probabilistic” approach to decision-making, best detailed in Jacob Weisberg’s helpful 1998 profile in the New York Times Magazine. This isn’t Robert McNamara’s fatal belief in the ability of Reason to solve all human problems. It’s more nearly the opposite: the trader’s instinct for coping rationally with a crazed, unknowable world. Rubin’s determination to coolly assess options and the likelihood of various outcomes sounds pretty elementary. But this sang-froid is rare and indispensable in crises (like the Asian meltdown) when the stakes are high and those around you are losing their heads. It’s a quality he plainly thinks about: Rubin is the only former official I know who makes the process of governmental decisionmaking a central theme of his speeches. He urges citizens to judge officials not on the outcomes of their decisions, which often turn on unknowable intervening events, but on whether they wisely evaluated the information available at the time a decision had to be made. To judge otherwise, he argues, makes leaders too cautious too often.
This modest rationality is not what you ordinarily associate with utopian liberal schemers. Which is what makes Rubin’s secret appeal so promising: he’d pull Gore, and the country, to the left. Here’s why. The main thing standing between America’s current bounty and a sane run at LBJ’s unfinished agenda is the Republican drive to use today’s huge surpluses for a massive tax cut for the rich. Blocking that tax cut has been the chief aim of Clintonian maneuvering since 1997. George W. Bush has made that tax cut (a far bigger version, in fact, than Newt Gingrich dared offer) the centerpiece of his candidacy. The issue, as they say, has been joined.
If Gore picks Evan Bayh or Bob Graham or some other plain old pol, Bush will look credible arguing the merits of his plan. After all, what do these political lifers know about the real world? Now imagine a race in which, every day, Bob Rubin—the Democrat’s super-meritocrat and economic trump card—quietly hammers George “It-was-all-handed-to-me-on-a-platter” Bush for having no understanding of what makes an economy work, while explaining that rich people like Bush and himself don’t need a big tax cut when 44 million Americans are uninsured and urban schools are crumbling. When undecided voters take Rubin’s side, they’ll not only sweep the Dems into the White House, they’ll vanquish the big-tax-cut crowd for good.
This rout will free Rubin to whisper to Gore that it’s time (and safe) to think big. And he’ll be ready: Rubin was the only treasury secretary in history, after all, with his own antipoverty agenda. He’s a dreaded “limousine liberal,” we’re told by media heavies, who smirk when intoning the phrase, as if the awfulness of such a state were self-evident. But what’s so bad about limousine liberals? Is the alternative—rich people (or pundits) who couldn’t care less about poor people—really more “authentic” or attractive? It may not take a village to raise a child, but only a pro-business Democrat with a hundred million to spare is sufficiently bulletproof to persuade folks that its time to do more for those left behind.
Who else would approach Rubin’s credibility when they argued, as he does, that the talent he served with in government matches or exceeds the talent he saw during decades at Goldman Sachs? That message, delivered from the veep’s bully pulpit, would do more than a thousand handwringing think tank seminars to lure the best and brightest from dot-coms to public service.
Best of all, of course, Rubin is filthy rich, and thus free (under five justices’ view of our Constitution) to spend as much as he likes on a Gore-Rubin ticket. With Bush opting out of federal election funding and its associated spending limits to plunder the GOP cash machine, Rubin’s ability to plunk down $50 million could be decisive.
What else can you say? If Gore died Rubin would be a steady hand at the rudder. If markets wobbled he’d be the calmest voice in the storm. And the awkward financial man poses no threat to Gore’s charisma gap. Rubin’s sane enough to mean it when he says he’s not suited to, and doesn’t want, elected office. But a party can hope, can’t it?
The Lord rested on the Sabbath, but it’s impossible to imagine Al Gore doing so. The man is a political Clydesdale, his eyes straight ahead, pushing his way forward. As his handlers have discovered, his manner makes him effective on the attack—he is a bludgeoning machine—but it also makes him a little creepy. Why does he seem so intent even when he’s supposed to be loose? This is why he needs Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Sen. Lieberman does rest on the Sabbath, every Sabbath, because the Torah tells him to. He obviously has a life outside of politics. And it shows in his gentle demeanor and his reflective nature. Sen. Lieberman doesn’t bring many electoral votes to the ticket, but he brings sensibility and balance. People actually like the more authentic Joe Lieberman. He seems like he’d be enjoyable company.
There are three things a presidential candidate needs from a vice presidential nominee. First, he needs him to energize the convention. Sen. Lieberman would do that. Democratic delegates would love the idea of putting a Jew a heartbeat away from the presidency. It’s so Jackie Robinson! They’d be reminded that theirs is the party of civil rights and breaking down ethnic barriers. The press would love it too. There would be so much to write and talk about: the place of religion in society (a circulation builder), the ins and outs of orthodox Jewry, his wife, Hadassah, herself a dynamic personality. There would be endless ruminations on whether America is ready for a Jewish vice-president. I suspect we’d find it is. Remember, while Catholics and Protestants do not form cohesive voting blocks any more, highly religious people do. If you attend services weekly, whether Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, you are more likely to vote Republican. Lieberman would appeal to the highly religious of all faiths, and help the Democrats shake off their secularist tinge.
Second, the vice-president has to be effective in the televised debate. Can you imagine how difficult it would be for the Republican vice-presidential candidate to launch a vicious attack on the Democratic ticket with Joe Lieberman standing at the other podium? The man exudes civility and makes anybody who goes on the attack look like a rabid dog by comparison. How would the Republican raise the issue of the Clinton sleaze? Lieberman was one of the chief Democratic critics of Clinton sleaze. By joining the Gore ticket he’d be a step toward putting the party beyond all that. Of course, Lieberman wouldn’t be much good at attacking the Republican ticket. But with Al Gore at the top of the ticket, the Democrats don’t need another hatchet man.
Third, if a Gore/Lieberman ticket were elected, the vice-president would raise the tone of the White House. These days, administrations seem to be staffed by more and more ruthless political players. Once Democratic operatives decided they were going to be as hardball as Lee Atwater, they adopted bare-knuckle tactics with the fervor of converts. The Clinton scandals were all magnified because the Clintonistas lied so blatantly and ruthlessly assaulted their accusers. The counterattack was often more revolting than the crime. Lieberman would at least serve as a hall monitor for all those thrusting 27-year-olds who now seem to run White Houses.
Gore doesn’t have a lot of great choices when it comes to vice-presidential picks. There aren’t a lot of Democratic governors anymore, or even a lot of promising Democratic senators. But there is one outstanding pick—the guy in the yarmulke.
At one of his final news conferences as mayor of Philadelphia, Ed Rendell was asked if he might like to be vice president of the United States.
A few seconds passed. His eyes glistened. Maybe he was thinking back to a time when the idea would have been ludicrous—that point in the mid-1980s when he had lost successive campaigns for governor and mayor and his once promising political career appeared to have collapsed. But a lot had changed since then. Philadelphia had recovered and so had Rendell.
After two terms as the hugely popular mayor of a city that at one time couldn’t pay its bills, Rendell’s career possibilities seemed limitless: governor, cabinet secretary, and beyond. And why not? Al Gore himself had given Rendell the ultimate tribute, dubbing him, “America’s Mayor.” “Do I want to be vice president?” Rendell asked softly in a City Hall reception room decorated with formal portraits of mayors past. Damn right he does.
The Rendell story sells. A gutsy, plain-spoken mayor in the New Democratic mold takes office in the early 1990s. Philadelphia is near bankruptcy. Its bonds have sunk to junk status. Even more worrisome, the city’s self-image is suffering and its national profile isn’t much better. It wasn’t so long ago that police dropped a bomb on an anarchic cult called MOVE, incinerating a rowhouse neighborhood under the watch of former mayor W. Wilson Goode. Rendell wastes no time. He gets down on his hands and knees and scours a toilet in dingy City Hall.
He announces that the city is broke. Determined to cut spending, he wrings wage concessions from a municipal workforce that, he says, hasn’t had “a bad day for 30 years.” He balances the budget; ratchets down an oppressive wage tax; promotes Philadelphia tirelessly, luring hotels and restaurants and reinventing the city as a tourist destination, a center of culture and arts and sports and entertainment. The mayor’s optimism proves infectious. Philadelphians begin to believe.
Through it all, Rendell has the time of his life. He opens a municipal swimming pool by stripping down to his trunks and leaping in—hairy back and all. When he leaves office in January 2000, his approval rating is through the roof. He moves to his next assignment, general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, where he becomes one of his party’s chief fund-raisers and spokesmen.
“Here’s a guy who said it’s the cities’ responsibility to right their ship rather than expect the rest of America to pull them along,” said Randall Miller, a history professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “He was America’s Mayor, and he didn’t have the hard edge that Giuliani had in doing that. He could sell the idea of the city. He could sell Philadelphia and he could do it with enormous good cheer.”
It’s a story with a few holes. The city continued to hemorrhage population under Rendell. Thousands of middle-class families left for the suburbs, unwilling to enroll their children in a foundering public school system that never got the mayor’s full attention. After eight years of America’s Mayor, Philadelphia’s thriving core was ringed by abandoned cars, vacant lots, and crumbling houses. Still, for a public fed up with Washington insiders, with government paralyzed by infighting, Rendell could be packaged as a fresh-faced antidote.
“Al Gore needs someone who is not Washington,” said David L. Cohen, Rendell’s close friend, former campaign manager, and chief of staff. “Al Gore is quintessential Washington, and I don’t think he wants to choose another senator or congressman. It would be better for him to have someone from outside of Washington, and that means you look at governors and mayors. And if you look at successful governors or mayors, Ed Rendell has to be at the top of your list.”
Don’t discount geography. Pennsylvania is a vital swing state in the general election, its cache of 23 electoral votes coveted by both Gore and George W. Bush. California will probably go Democrat; Texas, Republican. But Pennsylvania is in play. If there is any doubt about the state’s importance, look how seriously the Bush camp is considering Pennsylvania’s GOP governor, Tom Ridge. Rendell is a behemoth in the populous eastern part of the state. He won re-election in 1995 with 77 percent of the vote. As a bonus, Rendell is well-known in parts of New Jersey (15 electoral votes) and in Delaware (3), where he has appeared often on TV.
“The battleground states are going to be states in the Northeast and Midwest that have traditional big-city constituencies,” said Thomas Leonard, a Philadelphia attorney and fund-raiser for the Democratic Party. “A lot of ethnics; a lot of city-oriented voters.” He added: “Rendell therefore becomes attractive as a successful big-city mayor who gets along with organized labor but was tough enough to stand up to them and turn a city around financially.”
As a campaigner, Rendell would nicely complement Gore. Where Gore is stiff, Rendell is natural. Where Gore looks scripted, Rendell is spontaneous. The ex-mayor avoids jargon and has a gift for connecting with his audience. A lawyer by training, a politician by instinct, Rendell’s speeches are an amalgam of logic and passion. He isn’t afraid to cry in public, especially when the subject turns to parent and child. Rendell was 14 when his own father, a middleman in New York’s garment district, died of a heart attack.
None of this is to say Gore-Rendell is the dream ticket. Though his administration was largely free of scandal, Rendell can expect renewed attention to his private life should he be nominated for the vice presidency. Rendell, who is married to a federal judge, can be flirtatious with women. He has been dogged by rumors of extra-marital affairs. Is the country ready for that after Bill Clinton? Cohen sees a difference. First, he said he doesn’t believe Rendell has been unfaithful. The best efforts of enterprising reporters have come up empty, and Clinton’s troubles are of a different magnitude.
Then there’s religion. Rendell is Jewish. Gore has a chance to shatter the religion barrier by picking Rendell. But is the country ready for a Jewish vice president? Ancient prejudice may be the one obstacle this most nimble of politicians can’t surmount.