When a party's presidential nominee chooses a vice presidential running mate, we get the best pre-election glimpse into that nominee's mind we are likely to have. First and foremost, we find out whether the candidate is focused on winning the election or thinking about something else.
With John Kerry's choice of John Edwards, we have reason to believe the nominee has his eye on the ball.
Of course, the nominee always talks about finding someone who could fill the bill as president. And well he should. It's not just that the veep could become president. The last two vice presidents have had real impact and influence even without acceding to the Oval Office. The once-despised second office is growing in importance under contemporary pressures.
But first things first. The best person for the job -- the best No. 2 imaginable -- will be just a footnote unless the ticket wins. At this stage of the election year, someone in Kerry's position has just one job: winning an Electoral College majority. And the best first step he can take is to pick someone who can help with that job.
This is especially true in the case of out-party challengers to incumbent presidents. The historical odds are already stacked against him, so Kerry could ill afford the luxury of picking someone for reasons that don't matter on Election Day.
That includes the luxury of picking someone you always agree with, or someone who's easy to cozy up to in your personal comfort zone. It would also be indulgent for Kerry to worry about being upstaged or outshone by a running mate with more charisma.
Among those who bit the bullet with their choice was John F. Kennedy in 1960. His personal relations with Lyndon B. Johnson were akin to mutual contempt, and Johnson had been more senior and more powerful in the Senate. But LBJ delivered his home state of Texas and helped Kennedy win five other Southern states in November. You can say all you want about the wisdom of putting LBJ a heartbeat away, but without him there probably would have been no Camelot.
Another example of discipline was Republican Robert Dole's choice of Jack Kemp in 1996. Dole and Kemp had feuded across a chasm of policy disagreement and personal dislike in Congress. But Dole knew it was tough to wrest the White House from an incumbent and he knew he needed a wattage boost on the stump.
Kemp was something of a disappointment to his own fans, and Dole still lost. But if the overall contest had been closer, he might have made a difference. Most important, Dole showed he was willing to put his personal preferences aside in service of a larger goal. That's a good quality to look for in a president.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan did not seek a soul mate for his No. 2 but accepted the advice of confidantes who pushed first Gerald R. Ford (the former president) and then George W. Bush (the future president). Bush added regional balance, Washington experience, an aura of moderation and a sense that Reagan was running a practical campaign, not an ideological crusade.
Bush himself, however, did not follow suit eight years later, when he chose Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle. Other than youth, it is hard to see what Quayle added to the 1988 ticket. His home state was not in doubt, and he had no special claim on any category of voters. The strong impression of the day was that Bush had spent eight years in Reagan's shadow and was not about to compete for the spotlight with his own No. 2.
Bill Clinton in 1992 chose not regional balance but reinforcement (Tennessee with Arkansas), and added a near-match in age. But contrast and balance came into play with in Al Gore's personal story: the famously devoted family man who had volunteered for Vietnam.
In 2000, when the current President Bush chose Dick Cheney, he seemed less concerned about running for president than about running the country. Cheney's home state of Wyoming and his conservative wing of the GOP were never in question. His own skills on the stump brought few converts in 2000 and will probably attract still fewer in 2004.
Since then, Cheney has fulfilled (and perhaps exceeded) all expectations as a force within the administration. But you have to wonder: Back on Election Night 2000, with Pennsylvania and Michigan going for Gore and perhaps taking the presidency with them, did anyone in the Bush camp wish they had tapped one of the very available Republican governors of those two states rather than Cheney?
All this history suggests Democrat John Kerry was well-advised to pursue Republican Senate colleague John McCain this spring, on the off-chance McCain would cross party lines to be his vice president. Kerry and McCain's voting records in the Senate are nearly mirror opposites, yet their pairing would have electrified the electorate and sent a fresh message. No other ticket tested with voters has moved the polls much so far, but one national poll found Kerry-McCain leading Bush-Cheney by 14 percentage points.
But the "dream ticket" turned out to be just that. And back in the real world, Kerry showed he had his focus where it belongs. Edwards has not been his favorite colleague in the Senate, and some of the shots Edwards took at him during the primaries may have stung. Kerry might prefer someone else at his side in the White House. But none of that matters now, compared to the challenge ahead this summer and fall.