Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus calls Donald Trump the “presumptive nominee.” Trump deputy campaign manager Michael Glassner is heading to Cleveland to scope out the situation for his boss. Indeed, most Republicans — with the conspicuous exception of House Speaker Paul Ryan — are lining up behind Trump.
Of course, Trump still faces a daunting challenge. His single-minded #NeverTrump detractors have spent $43 million in the last three months to tear him down, and that’s a big reason why he’s 13 points down against Hillary Clinton in the latest CNN poll. And Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia — probably a liberal in his heart of hearts, but still, fair-minded enough — has released an electoral college map showing Trump losing, 347 to 191. To put those numbers in perspective, Sabato’s projection would put Trump in 2016 somewhere between the totals of John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 — both losers.
Meanwhile, the media are lying in wait to hurt Trump further. The Washington Post, which has published an endless string of anti-Trump editorials, as well as anti-Trump op-eds, offered some “news” in a May 5 headline: “This brutal new ad shows the shredding machine that awaits Trump.” As Stuart Stevens, a #NeverTrump Republican, has said with a cackle, a “one-billion-dollar buzzsaw” is coming after the real estate mogul.
Of course, all is not lost. As Trump likes to say, “Anybody who hits me, we’re going to hit them 10 times harder,” and who should doubt that he means it. Sixteen Republican rivals have already found out what it’s like to be hit by the Trump Truck.
Moreover, polls and projections can change. We might recall that in 1988, Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush was down 17 points against Democrat Michael Dukakis in May, and down by the same 17-point margin again in August — and yet, of course, Bush went on to win by almost eight points.
And Bush’s landslide victory — he won 40 states — came despite the self-imposed millstone of Dan Quayle, his vice presidential pick.
So now let’s talk about Trump’s vice presidential pick. It is, probably, the most important decision that Trump will make between now and the election; it is not only the choice that will affect the outcome of the race, it is also the choice that will reveal much about Trump the man.
As Newt Gingrich said admiringly, Trump may be “the Steve Jobs of modern politics” — that is, the singular genius who remade his world. But even Jobs, brilliant as he was, had a great team around him, led by chief designer Jony Ive.
So yes, Trump needs a team.
And on the subject of the vice presidency, Trump has had quite a lot to say in recent days.
He told Robert Costa of the Washington Post — a token conservative-friendly reporter at that paper — that his choice would be based on two factors. First, “The number one qualification always is, ‘Would they be a good president?’” And second:
Having a working relationship with the person is going to be very important. You have to have good chemistry. In all fairness, when Obama chose Biden, it was an odd choice and yet they have very good chemistry together and therefore it was a good choice for them. So having good chemistry is very important.
Looking ahead to the actual mechanics of his White House operation, Trump told Breitbart News’s Matthew Boyle that, as president, he would most need help dealing with Congress:
I need a political person. Somebody that can deal with the Hill, that can deal with Congress and get things done, get things passed.
Elaborating on that theme, Trump told the New York Times:
As president, I’ll be working from the first day with my vice president and staff to make clear that America will be changing in major ways for the better … I want a vice president who will help me have a major impact quickly on Capitol Hill.
One name that has come up repeatedly is Ohio Gov. John Kasich. As Trump said on CNN on Wednesday:
I’d be very interested in vetting John. I like John, I’ve had a good relationship with John, I’ve gotten along with him well.
Yet interestingly, Kasich has strongly denied any interest in the position. In February, he seemed to go out of his way to take himself out of consideration, declaring that he “would be the worst vice president anybody could ever imagine.” Continuing, Kasich said:
I’d be worse than Biden. Because I’m my own man. I’m not going to take orders from these people. It’s not what I do. It’s not who I am.
Indeed, others, too, have announced that they wish to take themselves out of consideration, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
But of course, in politics, one never says never — or at least one never, or almost never, means it. It’s likely that, in a crunch, most or all of the above names could be persuaded. But of course, maybe Trump isn’t interested in begging — maybe he’s better off searching among those who wish to be searched.
Indeed, Trump has set up a VP search committee, led by Dr. Ben Carson — he’s another of those who has asked to be removed from consideration.
So let’s consider some of the names that Trump might consider. In the interests of fairness, let’s identify a top ten and go in alphabetical order:
1) Ben Carson
Yes, Carson has taken himself out. And yes, he has agreed to lead the vice presidential search committee, but as we saw in 2000, the lead searcher can come up with, uh, interesting search results. Back then, Dick Cheney was leading George W. Bush’s VP-vetting committee, and then miraculously, Cheney ended up as the “best” candidate for Bush.
It’s possible that the same thing could happen again this year, but highly unlikely, for three reasons: First, Carson is an honorable man. Second, Trump is smarter than Bush, and therefore not likely to be gulled by a staffer. And third, for all his talents, Carson is not a Capitol Hill wheel — he flunks Trump’s core test.
2) Gov. Chris Christie
As a state legislator and a governor, Christie certainly seems to possess all the inside-player skills one could want in a VP. And in the shorter term, to the extent that Trump sees his running mate as an “attack dog” against the Democrats, well, Christie is more than qualified — ask Marco Rubio.
Another consideration for a VP pick is more prosaic: Can he carry his home state? New Jersey has been blue, of course, since 1992. Yet Christie has carried it twice, the second time, in a landslide. And Trump himself has his chops when it comes to winning in the Northeast. So yeah, a Trump-Christie ticket could put the Garden State, and its 14 electoral votes, in play, bigtime.
Interestingly, we are now seeing an early test of Christie’s politico mojo. After Paul Ryan’s declaration that he was “not yet” ready to endorse Trump, Christie immediately announced that he would be reaching out to Ryan. So we’ll have to see how that goes. But if Christie brings home the bacon, in terms of bringing Ryan around, well, that would be a highly visible political feat.
3) Sen. Ted Cruz
Lyin’ Ted? Really? Stranger things have happened. And yes, on Wednesday night, Trump told Bill O’Reilly that it was conceivable that he could pick Cruz. Okay, but still: In the annals of strangeness, Trump picking Cruz would be up there. (And for what it’s worth, Virgil thinks that Cruz is anything but a liar; the real rap on the Texan is that he is candid, and then some.)
4) Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich
The Georgian would seem to meet all of Trump’s tests: He is qualified to be president, he knows the Hill, he knows politics. Indeed, Gingrich ranks as one of the smartest and most original thinkers in American life today. And while he is regarded, by some, as too “hot” to be president, well, Trump is “hot,” too. The “cool” politicians have gotten us into the mess we’re in, and the voters want a change. Like Trump, Gingrich equals change.
Moreover, Gingrich has long been allied with Trump, and when the full story of the 2016 campaign comes out, his positive influence on the Trump campaign will likely prove to have been extensive.
Some will point out that Gingrich is 72, which would potentially make him the oldest vice president ever. On the other hand, Gingrich is highly visible, and highly articulate, on TV just about every day; he doesn’t seem to be faltering at all, not in the least.
5) Former Gov. Mike Huckabee
After his own candidacy fizzled in February, Huckabee emerged as a staunch Trump defender on cable news. And of course, long before, Huckabee had his own considerable strengths: He was the highly regarded governor of Arkansas for more than a decade, and, as early as his 2008 presidential campaign, he identified the blue-collar blues affecting much of the country — and this at a time when most Republicans were Bush-era don’t-worry-be-happy kool-aid drinkers.
Huckabee, a veteran preacher and broadcaster, has a strong following among evangelicals, pro-lifers, and gun owners. And while the six electoral votes of Arkansas are already in the bag for Trump this November, Huckabee could help across the Sunbelt. Plus, he’s a good debater.
6) Gov. John Kasich
Ohio, of course, is the swingingest of swing states. And Kasich proved his strength among Buckeyes on March 15 when he won the Ohio primary convincingly.
Moreover, Kasich has the right resume: He was a Congressman for 18 years, and has enjoyed two successful terms as governor. He even did a stint at Fox News!
Still, there’s the issue of temperament. When a man says that he “would be the worst vice president anybody could ever imagine,” it’s probably important to heed him.
7) Retired Gen. James Mattis
Trump’s whole campaign has been about strong leadership, and it’s hard to think of a stronger leader than this Marine four-star. Indeed, Mattis is so prominent, and so respected, that the anti-Trump forces within the Republican Party, led by Bill Kristol, made a strong pitch to Mattis to be their renegade third-party standard bearer. But Mattis said “no,” and firmly.
But is Mattis “political”? Well, nobody climbs as high as Mattis has climbed without knowing the ropes of Washington, DC, as well as the battlefield. Indeed, one of our greatest presidents, Dwight Eisenhower, went from being a five-star commanding general to being commander-in-chief without missing a beat.
What’s mostly unknown, though, is how Mattis gets along with Trump, and how effective he would be as a campaigner.
8) Sen. Marco Rubio
If it’s hard to see Trump picking Cruz, it’s even harder to see Trump picking Rubio — who called him, among other nasty things, a “con man.” But again, things happen: John Kennedy and his top aide, his brother Bobby, both despised Sen. Lyndon Johnson, and yet they picked him, anyway, to be JFK’s running mate in 1960. And yes, LBJ delivered Texas for the Democratic ticket that year, although today, it’s doubtful that Rubio has that sort of muscle in Florida.
Yet the even harder question about Rubio is whether he would be loyal to Trump’s agenda. The Floridian did, after all, stake himself out as the open-borders neocon candidate. Indeed, the joke on the campaign trail this year was that Rubio was implicitly promising the restoration of the Bush 43 presidency; his roster of donors and advisers was top-heavy with old W. hands. So it would certainly be unfortunate for the Trump agenda if his youthful running mate, eyeing his own presidential future, were constantly calculating out a different position.
9) MSNBC host Joe Scarborough
Scarborough has long been a relatively pro-Trump voice on cable TV, even as he has preserved his reputation as a shrewd and independent analyst. And before that, of course, he was a four-term Congressman from Florida. Yet his political career ended rather abruptly in 2002, amidst unanswerd questions about the death of a young female staffer in his office. Scarborough was never formally accused of any wrongdoing, but still, the unexplained death of Lori Klausutis is a cloud over Morning Joe.
Moreover, more recently, Scarborough may have scuppered any chance he might have when he said that he wouldn’t vote for Trump if Trump stuck by his hard-edged positions, such as his proposed ban on Muslim immigration. Could Trump feel compelled to back down on a position because his would-be running mate told him to? That’ll be the day.
And then, the feud got worse, as Trump and Scarborough got into a Twitter war. By now, Trump will have Megyn Kelly on his ticket before he has Scarborough.
10) Sen. Jeff Sessions
The four-term Alabama Senator endorsed Trump back in February, when it really mattered. Indeed, months earlier, Sessions had dispatched his key policy aide, Stephen Miller, to the Trump campaign to serve as the New Yorker’s policy adviser — and Miller did a great job of articulating Trump’s key issues, notably immigration. This is not surprising, since Sessions has long been the strongest single voice in Congress on restrictive immigration enforcement.
Like Gingrich, Sessions is not young — he’ll turn 70 later this year — but he, too, is obviously vigorous. And Sessions has demonstrated his political mastery; not only is he a respected member of the Senate, but, in 2014, he was the only senator seeking re-election who was completely unopposed in both the primary and the general election.
Okay, so that’s the Trump top ten, as Virgil sees them. One could add other names, such as, for example, Sarah Palin. The former Alaska governor was a clutch Trump endorser before Iowa, and that means a lot.
But still, Palin is, well, Palin, and so it’s hard to take her seriously as a vice president. She has enormous talent as a politician — her speech to the 2008 Republican convention in St. Paul will stand forever as one of the great rock ‘em, sock ‘em campaign orations — but she has all too obviously not improved herself since.
In addition, we can cite a number of attractive young Republican senators, including Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and John Thune of South Dakota. Although none of them are known nationally, any of them could be seen as competent and qualified.
Yet the greatest single challenge to Trump is, frankly, winning this November. He has to reach 270 electoral votes, something that Republicans have done only twice in the last six elections, and then only barely.
In the view of this grizzled veteran, it would be a mistake for Trump to think he can win by following a Karl Rove-type micro-targeting strategy that would seek to target a few key swing states, such as Ohio, Colorado, and New Mexico. Such a strategy might work — it worked for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, albeit barely — but the Democrats are waiting for it. They have that billion-dollar buzzsaw ready to blaze away, and if they can further concentrate their resources into a handful of key counties in those key states, well, that’s the defensive ambush game the Democrats want to play.
And so all that argues against picking a vice president — say, Kasich, or Gardner of Colorado, or Martinez of New Mexico — just because that pick could possibly deliver his or her home state.
So instead of micro-targeting, maybe Trump should try macro-targeting. That is, aim for the whole country; run a 50-state campaign. That’s what Gingrich has been arguing for on Fox News.
Indeed, Gingrich can point to his 1994 success with the Contract with America, which brought Republicans control of the House for the first time in four decades. That was exactly the sort of big, bold “air war” that took the Democrats by surprise. Gingrich’s Contract helped the GOP win everywhere; they even won two House seats in Massachusetts. In other words, it was exactly the sort of upset victory that Trump now needs, too.
Over the last year, Trump has made a point of rejecting stale Republican orthodoxy on a host of issues, from Social Security to Iraq. And so once again, now, as he prepares to make the vital vice presidential decision, he probably needs to reject stale orthodoxy once again.
Yes, he needs to swing for the fences, not seek to punch out a single.
If Trump can get good wood on the ball, if he and his running mate can really connect with the voters, he’ll have not only a political victory, but also the policy mandate he needs.
And that’s the real definition of #Winning.