06/16/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Shoot Spiro First"

Until one of them becomes president, the most important and public decision John McCain and Barack Obama will make is their choice of a running mate. It's clear to me that the parties go about choosing a vice president very differently. Let me explain.

The Democrats tend to follow the traditional route. They ask the expected questions of their potential running mates and usually choose the person who answers most of them the best: Who is prepared to serve if something happens to the President? Who 'balances' the ticket in terms of policy and geography? Who swings a 'swing state' in our direction? Essentially, who is the perfect complement to our candidate? Nothing surprising here -- this is how most of us expect the process to unfold.

Yet, the Republicans seem to have a very different methodology. Arguably, the last Republican presidential candidate to choose a 'competent' running mate (and I am being generous here), was Ronald Reagan when he chose Papa Bush. Now that he has died and been officially sainted, most people have forgotten that when Reagan was first elected he was a very divisive figure who stirred intense feelings from supporters and detractors alike.

So what happened? Just 69 days into his presidency there was a failed assassination attempt on Reagan. But for the heroic efforts of the Secret Service and a quick trip to the hospital, George Bush would have been president for nearly a full term. Instead, Al Haig was in charge -- at least in his mind -- Reagan recovered, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Before that, Gerald Ford also picked someone with appropriate experience and likability -- Nelson Rockefeller. Even though he didn't serve a full term, twice, assassins tried unsuccessfully to take out Ford. If they had succeeded, it would have been oysters Rockefeller all around.

There are a great many things to criticize our Republican friends for, but one thing I've noticed -- when something doesn't go their way, they learn how to fix it and adjust accordingly.

For the answer to this problem, they only had to look back as far as Richard Nixon, who despite being one of the most despised figures in American political history, was never the target of an assassination attempt. Why was that? Because, he had the infinite wisdom to choose someone who was even more despised than he was. In fact, as a teenager, I remember seeing anti-Nixon, anti-war rallies on television with protesters carrying signs proclaiming, "Shoot Spiro First."

The first President Bush learned his lesson. His vice presidential pick was almost a taunt. Can't you just hear him thinking, "Go ahead -- take me out -- Dan Quayle will be your president. Ha Ha, joke's on you."

In between, Bill Clinton did it the Democratic way -- he chose quality. And while no one pulled a gun on him, he was subjected to his share of potshots and but for a few votes in the Senate, Al Gore would have been humming, "Hail to the Chief." Perhaps if Clinton had chosen someone more loathsome, the impeachment proceedings would have never happened.

When it came time for Bush II and Gore to make their choices -- they stuck to their party themes. Gore chose the seasoned, but at the time non-threatening, Joe Lieberman, while Bush looked to his father's example and chose the meanest, most divisive SOB he could find. Despite the highest disapproval ratings ever recorded, he has remained unscathed. Thank you Dick Cheney.

What does all this mean for 2008? Barack Obama is going to be safe and smart. Look for him to choose a Senator with impeccable foreign policy credentials, a Governor of a swing state, or some other appropriate, quality choice.

What about John McCain? Hey, McCain's been shot at before and I don't think he looks forward to that happening again. So, if he is any student of history, look for a graduate of the Karl Rove Charm School on the ticket. McCain/Rumsfield anyone?