07/13/2012 10:35 pm ET Updated Sep 12, 2012

What Vice Presidential Selections Tell Us About Our Presidents

The vice presidency of the U.S. is "not worth a quart of warm spit," declared one of FDR's vice presidents, John Nance Garner. That may indeed be true so long as a president doesn't die in office, but the process by which a presidential candidate chooses his running mate is a very important one because it often tells us everything we need to know about the man or woman who seeks to lead us. In the last 30 years, we've learned a lot about our presidents and wanna-be presidents by whom they chose and as Mitt Romney seeks a running mate, we'll also learn a thing or two about him.

In recent history, Ronald Reagan provided tantalizing clues about who he was and what he thought about himself through his choices of two different running mates. In 1976 then a candidate for the GOP nomination, Reagan took the unprecedented and bold step of choosing a nominee during the GOP primary, a pro-life but otherwise liberal Republican named Dick Schweiker, governor of Pennsylvania. Four years later, Reagan chose another moderate, George H.W. Bush, but only after essentially strongarming him into changing his position on abortion. Reagan correctly understood his position in the political culture of his day and realized that as a hard-right candidate he would need a pragmatic and centrist partner to reassure the general populace that he wouldn't be too radical. But he drew the line at abortion, insisting that they pledge fealty on that issue even as they wavered from his positions on other ones. Reagan proved himself to be bold, yet keenly self-aware of his own limitations.

Eight years later George H.W. Bush's selection of Dan Quayle told us volumes about Bush the man. Choosing a relatively unknown and untested Senator meant that Bush wasn't looking for a partner, but a son, one whom he could teach but would be in no danger of serving as his equal or be in any danger of stealing the spotlight from him. He also understood that as a moderate himself, he would have to shore up his base with conservatives and picked a candidate that was his ambassador to their community. His choice proved him to be both timid and insecure.

Four years later Bill Clinton showed us three things about himself with his choice of Al Gore: First, he was so supremely confident in his own skills as a politician and a communicator that he could appoint an equal, a man just as smart as he was to be his #2. Second, knowing his womanizing tendencies, he needed a straight-arrow for whom there would be no scandals. Finally, confident of his chances, Clinton made no effort to find geographical or ideological balance to the ticket, opting instead for a clone of himself: a relatively moderate Southerner. We learned from his pick that Clinton was confident and not easily threatened by others.

Two elections later Al Gore faced George W. Bush, who probably revealed the most about himself through his choice of Dick Cheney, the man he had tasked with heading up the VP search committee, a process which Cheney's critics will be forgiven for thinking he rigged in order to make himself the choice. Of Bush we learned that he was supremely cocky and out of touch with his chances, thinking that his vice presidential choice need not help deliver a state for him since Wyoming has few electoral votes and is safely in the GOP column. The choice also showed that he was keenly aware of his own lack of experience on the national and world stage and his need for a partner who had been around Washington. It also showed a bit of teeth toward his father, since Cheney was a longtime adversary of his father's within GOP circles and established Bush 43's independence from his father's shadow.

In the case of Barack Obama, rather than appointing a moderate to balance out his own strong progressive streak, he doubled down and appointed Biden, one of only three other Senators who had voted to Obama's left while in the Senate. But the choice did provide reassurance to the Establishment that he would choose an experienced hand, one who knew his way around Washington and could handle foreign policy issues and he accomplished all of that with the Biden choice. In so doing, Obama showed his supreme confidence in his ability to explain and sell his progressivism to voters without making any gestures to the center by picking, say, a moderate like Tim Kaine of Virginia. He also seemed to show that he saw no need to add a state by choosing a candidate who could deliver one with a large number of electoral votes. And as with Clinton's choice of the straight-laced Gore to cover his womanizing ways, Obama understood that he would need an expressive and outgoing veep to make up for his tendency to be a loner.

Which brings us to today and the looming choice of Mitt Romney. Get out your scorecards, here's what to look for:

If Romney has a correct view of himself, namely that save for fellow members of the LDS church whose tribal impulses at the thought of one of their own in the White House are giving them great excitement, nobody else has any great affection for him, he'll understand that he has to pick a candidate who is adored by conservatives who form the base of his party. That points to either New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnel or Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. If Romney misjudges his own standing with the electorate ala Sally Field ("you like me, right now, you like me!") and thinks himself to be a dynamic candidate who doesn't need an exciting partner, he'll choose a boring candidate like Tim Pawlenty or Rob Portman. And finally, if he misunderstands the fact that in their hearts, conservatives have contempt for him and begins to mistake their polite applause for real affection or enthusiasm, he'll pick a pro-choice, moderate Republican like Condoleezza Rice or Meg Whitman, disastrous choices which which would ignite a rebellion among the conservative base like one not seen since Bush 43 attempted to pick Harriet Miers to fill a supreme court vacancy. We will learn more about Willard Mitt Romney in the next few months than he may want us to know. And his pick will tell voters more about his character than anything he has to say.

Finally, if President Obama truly comes to understand how precipitously close he is to losing this election and how unsettled the nation is because of his economic stewardship, he'll invite Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden into the Oval Office and ask that they serve their country and save his presidency by switching jobs, injecting some excitement and imagination into a race that is sorely lacking it, and thereby showing the nation that he is keenly aware of his circumstances. That too will tell us volumes about who he is and how he sees himself.