Imagine you are a war hero senator running for president. You have a very long and, for the most part, dull legislative record. You're stiff on TV and generally listless on the stump. You can't stop talking like a senator even though you know it leaves people cold. Your opponent, the incumbent, is presiding over a booming economy just emerging from the doldrums. Your base despises the president, but you need to reach out to moderates who are inclined to like him.
Wouldn't it make sense to fix your charisma deficit and bolster your ticket by picking an energetic, enthusiastic, appealing younger guy - somebody who both excites your party's base and charms the press by being polite and high-minded?
Well, that's certainly what Bob Dole was thinking when he picked Jack Kemp as his running mate in 1996.
And it worked. Dole got a major bounce in many key states. How much of one was debated at the time, of course. (Dole made his choice so close to the convention that, to many pollsters, the two bounces seemed like one.) Nevertheless, the Kemp pick was hugely popular with the Republican base, and Kemp's reputation as a "compassionate conservative" - yes, Kemp used that execrable phrase long before Bush did - helped reach out to swing voters and independents.
According to numbers crunched at the time by Charles Cook of the respected Cook Political Report, the Kemp pick had more bounce than "Flubber." With younger voters aged 18 to 29, Dole jumped nearly 30 points after the convention. In the West he closed a 28-point deficit to a 2-point deficit. Among households making more than $50,000 a year, Dole moved from 13 points behind to 13 points ahead. Again, how much of the gain was from the convention and how much of it was from Kemp alone? We don't know, but it's fair to say Bob Dole was feeling pretty good with Kemp at his side coming out of the convention.
As you might recall from, say, the Lewinsky scandal or those Viagra commercials, Bob Dole never became president. Readers may provide their own dirty jokes from that juxtaposition. I am above such things.
So far, Edwards has provided only a tiny bounce nationally. But he has helped a lot, it appears, in various swing states. No one, including the Bush campaign, disputes that if the Democratic convention goes off without a hitch - that is, if Hillary doesn't tackle Edwards and wrestle the microphone from his white-knuckled grip - that the "Kedwards" campaign will emerge with a double-digit lead over George Bush. In fact, Bush's pollster, Matthew Dowd, has been publicly predicting a 15-point lead by August.
Obviously, the Bush campaign wants to "massage expectations" so that when Kerry does open up a huge lead it won't seem like a big deal. And if the lead turns out to be smaller than 15 points, the pundits will be able to proclaim the convention a dud. It's spin, but that doesn't mean it's not true.
I really don't think it matters. You can waste a lot of time trying to find an expert who thinks vice presidents matter very much. At the end of the day, it's the guys at the top of the ticket who matter. And that's the interesting part. Even before Kerry picked Edwards, everyone in Washington was comparing Kerry to Bob Dole. The UPI asked last April, "Is Kerry turning into Bob Dole?" Earlier this spring the buyer's remorse over Kerry was getting intense. Slate.com columnist Mickey Kaus launched a "Dem Panic Watch." The Associated Press reported, "Democratic leaders fear he's getting 'Gored.' " The New York Observer declared, "The Trouble Is, So Far Kerry Stinks on TV." Newsweek reported that Democrats see a "listless and message-less mishmash" in the Kerry campaign, while Time said Kerry had "something of a gift for the toxic sound bite." The Village Voice simply declared, "John Kerry Must Go."
Similar panic gripped the GOP about Bob Dole eight years ago. Then, for a fleeting moment after the Kemp/convention bounce, Republicans were giddy. Even California was "in play" for Republicans! But Kemp merely had a placebo effect. Clinton glided to victory, to the metaphysical consternation of the Clinton haters.
Of course, the parallels aren't identical. Edwards is a better politician than Kemp was, and he's from a more useful region. The times are different. And Republicans liked Bob Dole personally, while I don't know any Democrats who really like Kerry personally. Bob Dole got the nomination because it was "his turn." Kerry got the nomination because at the last minute Howard Dean imploded, and Democrats settled on Kerry because they thought he was the most electable. Neither were smart ways to pick a candidate. The jubilation over Edwards is, I believe, a sign that the Democrats are in denial about how bad a candidate Kerry is. Time will tell if I'm right.