Hillary Clinton’s Already Got Foreign-Policy Cred. So Who’s Her VP Pick?
The likely Democratic Party nominee checks nearly all the boxes, giving her almost unprecedented freedom — and pressure — in a vice presidential pick.
For the last two decades — and much of modern American history — the candidate who would go on to be president has chosen an elder statesman with foreign-policy chops to balance out the ticket. In 2016, Hillary Clinton is that elder statesman.
Unlike President Barack Obama, a community organizer, law professor, and freshman senator from Illinois, or his predecessor, George W. Bush, a Texas governor with presidential pedigree but a reputation for being uncouth, Clinton carries her own foreign-policy credentials as a candidate, significantly broadening her vice presidential possibilities.
This campaign cycle, the veepstakes are starting early. Primary wins have put both Clinton and Republican front-runner Donald Trump on a nearly unobstructed path to their parties’ nominations months ahead of the conventions. Even Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas jumped into the game on Wednesday, naming former rival Carly Fiorina as his VP pick in a move widely seen as a last-ditch bid to derail Trump despite being mathematically out of the running for the Republican nomination.
From Jimmy Carter to Obama, few presidents have had extensive foreign-policy or national security backgrounds, with the notable exception of George H. W. Bush. “So they look for a vice president that really comes in with a huge national security credential,” said Joel Goldstein, a scholar on the vice presidency and professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. Obama chose then-Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, a Senate foreign-policy fixture, in large part to give the ticket some foreign-policy credibility.
But Clinton herself covers most of the areas that VP picks are meant to shore up. She served eight years as a national security-focused senator before joining Obama’s cabinet as secretary of state. She’ll likely be the first woman nominated for president by one of the two major parties, ticking the gender box herself. She is already carrying the Latino and African-American vote and is getting an inadvertent assist from Trump, her likely Republican opponent, who is actually mobilizing minority voters to come out against him. And she is leading Trump in head-to-head matchups in the general election, including in the key swing states.
With all those boxes checked, Clinton has nearly unparalleled freedom — and pressure — in choosing her running mate. Among the names on her not-so-short list of possible picks are Rust Belt senators like Sherrod Brown of Ohio, populists closer to the Democratic Party’s left wing like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and swing-state party stalwarts like Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.
“She’s so strong on foreign policy, I think it’s less important,” Brown told Foreign Policy. “I think you look at [capability] and you look at who helps her carry states or win the election, or whatever.” But he reiterated that “I don’t really want this job.”
“Everybody would like to have an African-American five-star general who is from Ohio and is beloved in the state because he was an all-American football player at Ohio State before he went off to get his Ph.D. at Harvard for something and comes from a working-class family and had to wait tables in college to pay for it,” Goldstein said. “You’re going to pick from the real-world possibilities that present themselves.”
The Clinton campaign did not respond to an interview request, but of the list of some 20 names that the campaign will reportedly be vetting over the next several months — many of whom have been swirling for years — few have any national security experience.
A shortlist short on foreign policy
Of the potential picks from Congress’s upper chamber, Brown represents a Rust Belt state to blunt Trump’s momentum with frustrated blue-collar voters. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker is a dynamic politician whose pick would speak to the African-American community, a bedrock of the successful Obama coalition, but one that Clinton is already winning over handily.
Warren is popular among the more progressive crowd backing Clinton rival Bernie Sanders, but there’s believed to be little love lost between the two women; Warren has not yet endorsed Clinton. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar could also mobilize the base with an all-woman ticket and help in a Great Lakes region of Republican governors and state houses.
The problem with picking a senator: Democrats could lose a potential seat right as they are trying to win back control of the upper chamber, hopes that are fueled in part by Trump’s toxicity down ticket.
From Obama’s cabinet, the Clinton camp is reportedly looking at Thomas Perez, labor secretary and a Hispanic lawyer known for his civil rights work, as well as Julián Castro, the young Latino federal housing secretary and former mayor of San Antonio. Outside of Washington, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is another prominent African-American Democrat and potential pick.
That whole crowd has one thing in common: very little foreign-policy experience.
Both Castro and Perez are little-known, and their cabinet jobs are strictly domestic. Among the senators on the list, only Booker and Kaine have committee assignments related to foreign policy: Booker serves on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee but isn’t known for his work on national security. Kaine serves on both the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees and has emerged as a rising Democratic leader on the issue.
When Kaine was governor of Virginia, he was one of the first to endorse Obama against Clinton ahead of the 2008 election. This time around, Kaine was one of the first to endorse Clinton. He has been elevating his profile as a Clinton surrogate, excoriating Trump for his nativist rhetoric against minorities and for insulting the U.S. military. If Clinton faces Trump, “someone who wants to be commander in chief [and] who says the American military is a disaster,” Kaine said, “I think you will see that repeated ad nauseam in Virginia,” a state with a sizable military population.
But he reiterated he’s not seeking the spot. “I’m a happy senator. I like my job. I’m not looking for another one,” Kaine said. And if asked? “I can’t imagine that happening.”
Since 1952, Goldstein noted, there have been only two governors who have been nominated to the vice presidency: former Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s No. 2 who was forced to leave office, and Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and Arizona Sen. John McCain’s running mate for the Republican ticket against Obama in 2008.
McCain, now the Armed Services Committee chairman, is the last nominee with foreign-policy experience to rival Clinton’s, as a decorated veteran and longtime senator. He gambled on Palin, a young governor with no foreign-policy experience, and after numerous and infamous gaffes, she became something of a cautionary tale.
McCain said he’s trying to keep his distance from the race but gave this advice on picking a vice president: “It depends on the top of the ticket, but this would be the first election since 1980 that national security or foreign policy has been one of the top issues.”
Post-Palin, choosing an untested vice president who isn’t also “presidential” is a mistake, Goldstein said — especially now that debates and media appearances are a substantial part of the job audition.
“Unless you’re sort of in a desperate situation, and maybe even then, your best bet is to pick somebody the voters you’re targeting can perceive as sitting in the Oval Office,” Goldstein said. “You don’t want somebody who’s never talked to a general before.”
George H. W. Bush — a congressman, ambassador, head of the CIA, and vice president himself — may be the best parallel to Clinton’s foreign-policy experience and emphasis, Goldstein said.
The elder Bush chose the relatively unknown Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle, by some accounts an ineffective vice president, in part because Bush was perceived as being too focused abroad and detached from everyday Americans who shop in grocery stores. In contrast, in 2000, George W. Bush picked his father’s defense secretary, Dick Cheney, as his vice president in order to bolster his national security gravitas. Cheney became one of the most aggressive — and arguably disastrous — vice presidents.
Klobuchar stressed the importance of compatibility between Clinton and her No. 2. “She’s got to pick the person who she is comfortable with,” she said. Asked whether an all-female ticket would fire up voters, Klobuchar quipped: “As you’ve probably heard, we’ve had only single-gendered tickets, so there’s precedent for that.” (Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to be nominated to national office by a major party when she accepted the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1984.)
Gilberto Hinojosa, the chair of the Texas Democratic Party, made an impassioned case for Castro, arguing his precocity proves he could get up to speed quickly. He noted Latin America historically plays a large role in American foreign policy.
But perhaps most importantly, he said, “What will excite Hispanics more than another Hispanic who will be VP? You don’t win by getting a majority of the Latino vote that votes; you win by getting a large majority of Latinos who don’t vote.”
For former Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware, Biden’s chief of staff for 19 years, electability takes a back seat to the grueling demands of the office itself.
“The president-elect should pick a vice president clearly based on their ability to help govern,” he said.
Even candidates like Clinton who have extensive security backgrounds still tend to choose running mates who have considerable foreign-policy experience, Goldstein said.
“That simply speaks to the importance of that credential to somebody who is going to be a heartbeat away from the presidency in a nuclear age and amid concern about terrorism.”
Photo credit: KAREN BLEIER / Staff