It was the most therapeutic call I could have received that morning.
This year’s crop of vice-presidential nominees, beginning with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who debuts on the big stage tonight, is closer to becoming eligible for admission into Bob Dole’s exclusive club. Candidates, here is some advice based on the extraordinary privilege and experience we share.
- Never forget who gave you the opportunity to run for national office.
It was your presidential candidate. The selection of a running mate by a presumptive presidential nominee has become one of the most unfettered exercises of power in our political system. I’ll always be grateful to Al Gore, especially since his decision took courage and confidence in the American people to pick the first Jewish American for a major national ticket.
Your indebtedness to the nominee doesn’t mean you have to bring him or her coffee every morning. But it does mean that he or she has the last word, hopefully after talking with you on major policy and political decisions during the campaign — and, if it works out, in office.
Al had a sense of humor about the relationship: One morning in 2000, he showed me a newspaper photo of the two of us taken the previous day. “Joe, as vice president for the last eight years, I have learned a lot about the responsibilities of the job,” he said. “In this picture, as I am speaking, you have already learned to strike a pose as you look at me that is vice-presidentially perfect — somewhere between profound respect and absolute awe!”
- Don’t flip-flop on positions you took before becoming the vice-presidential candidate.
As soon as you are chosen, the opposing party and the media will rush to point out the issues on which you have disagreed with the presidential candidate or core constituencies of your party. In my case, they went after policies such as school choice and tort reform.
My first public response was humor. When the Republicans said they and I thought alike on so many issues, my speechwriter, Paul Orzulak, came up with this one: “That’s like saying veterinarians and taxidermists are in the same profession because either way you get your dog back.”
Uncertain whether that would be enough, the campaign and I agreed that I should tell reporters and the unsettled interest groups that my position was my position — but if elected, the president’s position would prevail and I would support it.
To protect your credibility as a possible vice president, don’t abandon long-held beliefs because they are different.
- Speak out inside the campaign.
If you feel your views are not being solicited on campaign policy or strategy, you should complain quickly to your presidential candidate. He or she chose you because you have experience, which can also be the basis for useful advice. Sometimes the campaign staff may forget that, particularly since you will always be on the road.
In 2000, I had to argue with the campaign’s leaders that I should speak in more places that allowed me to highlight the constructive role religion plays in our society. Eventually, they agreed.
It took me much longer—probably too long—to win the argument that I should campaign in the largely Republican Cuban-American community in Florida, where I had developed close friendships and alliances during my years in the Senate. Who knows whether that effort would have brought enough extra votes in Florida to have avoided the recount? It wouldn’t have taken many.
As vice-presidential candidate you won’t win all the battles you wage inside the campaign, but when it’s all over, you will be glad you tried.
- Don’t believe the cynics who say that the vice-presidential candidate doesn’t have any effect on the outcome of the election.
Particularly this year, when the two major-party presidential candidates are unfortunately disliked or distrusted by so many people, and well over half of the voters tell pollsters that their vote for president will mostly be a vote against the other candidate, you can, by your record and your conduct in the campaign, tip the scales in favor of your ticket.
As I was told in 2000, there are three times when you will be the center of national attention: the day your selection is announced, the evening you give your acceptance speech at the convention and at the vice-presidential debate. So make the most of those opportunities. They can help, and they can also hurt.
The rest of the time, you will not be invisible, because even when you are not traveling with the presidential candidate you will have the press with you and the campaign will regularly want to take advantage of that by having you deliver a national message. For example, in 2000, I was dispatched to Texas on what our campaign called “A Failed Leadership Tour” to do events criticizing Governor Bush’s record on environmental protection and health care for Texans who couldn’t afford it. You will also naturally spend a lot of time in battleground states getting as much local media as you can. As I know from 2000, that, too, can make all the difference in the outcome.
- Don’t forget the main reason you are so grateful and excited to be running.
You got into politics to serve our country, and now you have a chance to do so at a level you never dreamed of. As partisan and ideologically rigid as our politics have become, and as much as you, as the vice-presidential candidate, will be expected to carry the attack to the other party’s candidates, please don’t do it in a way that will make it impossible, if you are elected, to work with the other party to solve some of America’s biggest problems. Otherwise, even if you win the campaign battle, you will lose the war to make our country better.
As I look back on my experience in 2000, one of the moments I am proudest of is the vice-presidential debate with Dick Cheney. We strongly disagreed on most topics, but we did so in a way that was not personal or divisive. Of course those were different times: It was pre-9/11, the economy was strong, people were feeling good about America’s future, and, although there was plenty of partisanship, a lot had been accomplished in the preceding years as a result of collaboration and compromise between the Democratic president and the Republican Congress. The way you conduct this year’s campaign can help get us get closer to where we were in 2000, which is where most Americans say they want us to be.
- The time from now until Election Day will be the most physically and intellectually demanding of your professional life.
You will work for 18 or 20 hours every day, often traveling to two or three states in a single day. You will be more sleep-deprived than ever before at the very time you will face more public scrutiny than ever before.
But I want to tell you from my personal experience that it’s all worth it. The wonderful people you meet along the way will convince you of that.
And, if you are elected, you will have the opportunity to help lead our country out of one of its most difficult times. If the election does not work out that well, expect a call from Bob Dole and me thanking you for a great campaign and welcoming you to our exclusive club.