What Donald Trump's VP choice will signal about his radical candidacy
Just days before the Republican National Convention, the stakes for Donald Trump in his choice of running mate could not be higher.
Minor plots proliferate among anti-Trump Republican delegates. They either seek to deny him the nomination, or even to convince him to quit the race, by requiring him to release his tax returns (presumably humiliating him) or picking a vice president for him that he'd find unacceptable. How Trump responds could be the key to understanding his candidacy for the rest of the election.
Leaked names reveal that he could go in three basic directions. Let's take a look:
1. Mollifying choices
Imitating past moderate and squishy Republican nominees, Trump could try to mollify the restive Republicans by picking a conventional conservative. Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle, and even Dick Cheney were VP picks that all served to reassure the base.
The Washington Times and some other party insiders think Trump will take the advice of those saying he needs to unite the party and pick Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R). The congressman-turned-governor was known as an all-around conservative in Congress. He was hawkish on border enforcement, budget cuts, and foreign policy. But he comes with significant downsides. His governorship has been rocky. And his performance in the public controversy over a "religious liberty" bill last year made conservatives doubt his intelligence and competence.
Trump has also considered Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who is generally conservative but whose passions are driven by implementing an aggressive foreign policy in the tradition of George W. Bush. And on the far end, there are rumors that Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) is on his list. She is a standard, Plains State conservative. And Trump may conclude that with her, he can not only mollify conservatives, but cut against Hillary Clinton's advantage with women.
2. Mind-meld choices
But Trump may decide that, like all #NeverTrump schemes, the convention plots will fail. Then he is free to pick a running mate that can do a mind-meld with Trump and act as a bridge in the media, someone from the GOP that is most simpatico with the Trump brand.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was one of the first to endorse Trump. While there's little evidence that Christie has given much thought to the issues that have animated the Trump campaign — immigration, globalism, trade, and foreign policy — what the governor shares with Trump is a kind of style. It is more anti-left than conservative; it treasures "respect" and authority more than tradition and restraint. It's also brash and a product of the tri-state area around New York City. Christie is sharp and quick-witted. A good attack dog.
Another contender is Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has been something of the Trump campaign's ideologist-in-chief from the beginning. Sessions distinguished himself as a border hawk in the Senate. And he has been more skeptical of free trade than average Republicans. He also has the respect of most grassroots activists in the party. But his fans believe that Sessions is needed in the Senate no matter what happens to Trump.
And then there's former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, one of the earliest Republicans to concede that Trump was having a transformative effect on the GOP. Gingrich proposes new and bold (and sometimes boldly stupid) ideas at a velocity that would makes his jowls comparable to hummingbird wings; they whirr with energy. That and his ideological flexibility make him a suitable spokesperson for the campaign. He would be effective at re-explaining Trumpism to conservatives and independents. Of course, he comes with his own baggage — namely that many Republicans are just plain worn out on Newt.
3. The transcendent choice
Trump could also try to transcend his opposition. By nominating someone abominable to conservatives but with the potential to reinforce the imagery and ideology that make Trumpism a kind of realigning revolution, Trump could rout conservatism as a political force once and for all.
Over the weekend, The Washington Post reported that Trump was personally interested in picking retired General Michael T. Flynn. On one level, Flynn is a hawk's hawk; the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he co-wrote a book with Michael Ledeen, an ideologue who wants to preserve America's role as the global hegemon, even at considerable cost. But Flynn is also a registered Democrat and believes in preserving legal abortion despite calling himself "pro-life."
The history of military men entering the political fray is a mixed bag in America — Admiral James Stockdale's impolitic demeanor was mercilessly ridiculed in 1992. But Trump's interest in a military man, someone from the one institution in American life that hasn't suffered a major loss of the public's trust, shows sound instincts. It would re-double the Trump candidacy's professed rationale as a revolt against a flaccid and self-dealing political class, while it simultaneously allays worries that Trump would be out of his depth on foreign and military affairs.
Of course, picking a registered Democrat may be too much for most Republicans to swallow. Trump himself was a party-switcher before his run. It may inspire a broader convention revolt, or enough disaffection that whatever independents the Trump-Flynn ticket picks up would be canceled out.
Whoever Trump picks, the choice will make a crucial difference in the next week or two. It will determine whether Republicans go into nuclear meltdown in Cleveland or put on a brave face heading toward the fall.
But the obstacles that the Trump campaign faces in the general election cannot be solved by his choice of running mate. For the simple reason that no matter who he or she is, Trump's running mate is stuck with Donald Trump.