Right now it seems likely that the choice of running mates by John McCain and Barack Obama will bring more complaints than praise. Whichever way the nominees may turn in their respective mazes, the dissents will outweigh the sighs of satisfaction.
That is because far too much hope and expectation is being freighted onto these decisions. The expectations of almost magical help are wildly out of line with the available talent.
John McCain is being told he must find someone who fastens him firmly to his party's core conservatives. And he is being told he absolutely has to have someone who broadens his appeal to the moderate middle of the electorate. He must have someone young to balance his age, someone who can deliver a state rich in electoral votes, someone acceptable to party regulars but well removed from the White House.
And, oh yes, a woman or a minority would be good.
Well, fine. There is no such person. And if such a superhuman did exist, we would soon enough find drawbacks — personal or political — to undermine him or her.
On the Democratic side, the demands are just as far over the top and contradictory. Obama is under pressure to choose his rival, Hillary Clinton, despite all the obvious incompatibilities and contradictions. Failing that, he must choose another woman, but not one offensive to Hillary.
At the same time, Obama is instructed to pick a governor, to cover his bases with an older white male, and, above all, to recruit someone with substantial military experience.
Oh, and, by the way, whoever it is has to have been an ardent Hillary supporter who is now equally loyal to Obama.
Once again, the list of people meeting all these criteria is the null set. Yet the expectations bar looms ever higher.
So how will these two candidates, each priding himself on his independent judgment, resolve these profound cross-pressures?
Easy. They won't.
Instead, they will trust their own instincts and probably choose people who confound us all. And in so doing they will charm some and enrage others. The idea is to surprise the watching crowd in a good way (think Bill Clinton picking Al Gore in 1992) and not a bad way (think George H.W. Bush picking Dan Quayle in 1988).
Let's face it. Running mates are good for two things. They can sometimes bring you their home state, as Lyndon Johnson roped in Texas for Jack Kennedy, and they can sometimes offer balance.
One thing they usually can't add is pizzazz. Walter Mondale tried this with Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. The First Woman motif was powerful at first, but after her husband's questionable dealings and secretiveness got into the news the experiment went sour. Bob Dole had much the same luck putting Jack Kemp on his ticket in 1996, and John Kerry fared no better with John Edwards in 2004.
So let's look at some of the top prospects in the Republican Party and let Ken Rudin handle the Democrats this week in his Political Junkie column.
McCain would love to turn the tables by choosing a woman or a racial minority. But finding someone who meets one of these criteria without having too much downside will be daunting.
Ms. and Ms. Maine. Olympia Snow and Susan Collins are Republican senators and female. They are popular in their home state, which has just four electoral votes. Worse, both senators are pro-choice and frequently at odds with their party on other issues. If John McCain thinks he has placated his party's base enough to choose a pro-choice running mate he will have the nastiest nominating convention since Hubert Humphrey survived bloody riots in Chicago in 1968.
Kay Bailey Hutchison. The most popular politician in the second most populous state has long been a favorite suggestion for those who believe a Republican ticket with a woman would be unbeatable. But Hutchison is notably weak as an onstage or TV performer and has never gotten beyond her basic Texas take on the issues. Listen to her defending the oil companies and you get the idea. She also has a hybrid position on abortion that will displease the hardliners on either side. And is McCain really concerned about carrying Texas?
Elizabeth Dole. The onetime presidential candidate is still a senator but no longer a likely prospect for the national ticket. She is older than McCain by a month and has all she can handle getting re-elected this year in North Carolina.
Sarah Palin. The recently elected governor of Alaska is 44, the mother of five, and a former state champ in high school basketball. She is truly mediagenic, strongly pro-life and full of spunk. But can McCain say Obama lacks experience but that Sarah Palin is ready to be a heartbeat away? Can he turn over Dick Cheney's office to someone whose only previous office was mayor of Wasilla?
Something like the same question will loom if McCain breaks the mold and names a political novice like Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman, each an embodiment of entrepreneurial success and free market savvy at Hewlett Packard and eBay, respectively. But would these women overshadow McCain's own economic credentials, and would they cloud the contrast between McCain and Obama on the key GOP issues of national security and preparedness? And is McCain prepared to deal with intraparty fallout over their views on social issues?
It does not get much easier if you give up on finding a woman and go looking for a non-Caucasian prospect in the current GOP. One who got invited to the Memorial Day Barbecue and Running Mate Sweepstakes at McCain's ranch last month was Louisiana Gov.
Bobby Jindal. He is getting a look right now because he is precociously bright, Asian American (his parents came to Lousiana from India) and a bona fide phenomenon in Republican politics. He ran Louisiana's health care system and its largest state university before becoming a congressman and then governor. And he is still just 36.
Right now the Repubicans have no prominent African-American officeholders, in Congress or the states. So this is the best way to advertise an interest in diversity. But Jindal is exactly half McCain's age, which may only make the issue more visible. Can McCain knock Obama's youth and inexperience and pick a running mate a decade younger?
So if there is not a bold breakthrough partner for McCain, what about a big state governor?
One problem is that there are not nearly as many GOP governors as there used to be before 2006, when the party's 28-22 advantage in the governorships was reversed. Worse yet, most of the survivors are not in big states.
One who would fit the bill is Charlie Crist in Florida, the man who helped deliver the fourth most populous state for McCain in January, triggering his crucial dominance in the big Super Tuesday casino on Feb. 5. But while Crist makes everyone's short list, few seem to think he will wind up being the one. As a single man who has never had the full faith of evangelicals in Florida, Crist may raise as many questions as he answers among conservatives who still doubt their presumptive nominee.
The other Republicans in big states have a variety of disqualifying problems. Arnold Schwarzenegger is foreign born and so constitutionally ineligible for the White House. Rick Perry in Texas and Sonny Perdue in Georgia have too much regional flavor for the national stage. Go down the list of the dozen most populous states and the rest of the governors are Democrats.
That brings us to Republican governors in medium-size states, such as Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota. The convention will be in St. Paul, and Pawlenty has some crossover appeal. But it's not entirely clear he could deliver his customarily blue state for McCain, let alone help out much in the adjacent swings states of Iowa and Wisconsin.
And after Pawlenty, the ranks of Republican governors consist of white men from Southern states no Republican could lose or Western states with electoral votes in single digits.
Finally, what about the men who battled McCain in the primaries? Why not Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani or Mike Huckabee or even Fred Thompson?
The first answer might be to consider the performance of this quartet in the primaries. Only Huckabee lasted through February, and he did so pretty strictly as a bid for VP. And it's hard to imagine Rudy Giuliani easing into the role of Number 2, even in the White House.
Romney would be an interesting choice, if McCain could stand having him around (never close, the two men drifted apart over the course of the campaign). Videotape clips of McCain mocking Romney in the debates would make marvelous general election ads - for the Democrats.
And remember, you can check out Ken Rudin's picks for the Democratic vice presidential candidate in his column.