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Vice presidential picks and short-term thinking

Ty Wright/Getty Images

Ted Cruz managed something pretty rare yesterday — he stole some limelight from Donald Trump. By naming Carly Fiorina as his running mate, long before the convention and without any clear path to his own nomination, he managed to generate some interest in his flagging campaign. The choice has been criticized by some for being a Hail Mary — the Washington Post referred to it as "an apparent act of desperation" — but compared to many other vice presidential picks, this one was actually not that unusual.

The logic of Cruz's choice seems pretty transparent, and possibly short-sighted. The biggest remaining primary is California's. Fiorina is well known among California Republicans. What's more, Cruz likely calculated, Fiorina could potentially make his campaign more attractive to Republican women who can't see themselves voting for either Donald Trump this spring or Hillary Clinton this fall. Perhaps Fiorina's addition to the ticket can help Cruz win enough delegates to prevent Trump from clinching the nomination and force a contested convention.

If such a scenario somehow plays out, and Cruz actually becomes the nominee, is Fiorina an asset to the fall ticket? Could she serve as a capable vice president? Should tragedy strike, could she serve as a capable president? Obviously, we don't know, and chances are the Cruz campaign doesn't know, either. That's a discussion for later in the campaign season. The Fiorina pick seems very much a product of short-term thinking.

The fact that Cruz announced a running mate so early in the season, and when he's so clearly not the presumptive nominee, is certainly unusual in the modern era (although hardly the most unusual thing about the 2016 Republican nomination contest). But the fact that Cruz made his choice based on such short-term thinking is really not that unusual.

The vice presidential choices in 2008, from what we can discern from various news reports and books, were also very short-term tactical decisions based on the campaign dynamics of that summer, rather than long-term choices about who would best serve the nation. John McCain chose Sarah Palin based on the assumption that there were large numbers of disaffected Democratic female voters angered by Hillary Clinton being denied her party's nomination. Barack Obama selected Joe Biden in part because of the escalating military situation in Georgia and concerns that his team didn't appear to have sufficient foreign policy experience.

George H.W. Bush allegedly picked Dan Quayle on a lark to demonstrate his own independence from his advisors. His son's pick of Dick Cheney seems to have been arranged by Cheney himself after reviewing all the available candidates. Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro as a potential game changer to shake up the bad electoral math he faced against Ronald Reagan. Al Gore likely picked Joe Lieberman in part to distance himself from the Lewinsky scandal — Lieberman had spoken out forcefully against President Bill Clinton during the impeachment trial.

That's not to say that these were all bad choices. Most were quite qualified for the job of vice president. But as we reflect on Ted Cruz's pick, it's worth remembering how many presidential candidates picked running mates based on immediate exigencies and naked political calculation. The multi-year scrutiny — with all the debates, speeches, ads, and punditry — that we apply to the top of the ticket is simply not in effect for the position that's a heartbeat away from the presidency. It's usually just a handful of people thinking about what will get their campaign through the next few months.

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