WASHINGTON – Few things are certain in presidential politics, but here are three: It will be expensive, it will get negative, and, at some point, former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia will be mentioned as a possible Democratic running mate.
The latter has been true in every presidential election since 1984 with the exception of 1996 (when the running mate was the incumbent vice president, Al Gore). It might have even been true going back to 1976 except that year’s Democratic nominee – Jimmy Carter – was also from Georgia.
And sure enough, as running mate list-making enters its quadrennial high season, Nunn is being named again as the proverbial "Southern moderate-conservative with foreign policy expertise and gravitas" who could be a complement to a Northern Democratic nominee feared too liberal and inexperienced – in this case, Barack Obama.
Nunn is a comfortable pair of old shoes to the blowhards and busybodies who fling names around during the post-primary, pre-convention dog days. He is a timeless object in the evolving sport of running mate speculation, an exercise that carries with it a host of distinct agendas and manipulations.
There are the real lists, bluff lists and lists of politicians who make a big show of saying they don’t want to be on the list even though they never were or would have been. Entire ballrooms in Denver and St. Paul could be filled with people who will claim to have been on Obama’s and McCain’s short lists.
"There’s a short list for show, and then there’s the actual short list," said Chuck Todd, the NBC News political director. And the "short list for show" can actually become quite long. It could include names that the campaign releases as plums to key supporters, whether or not said key supporters are actually being considered as running mates.
In some cases, the campaigns may actually parade these contestants, as when McCain last month hosted former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida and others at his Sedona, Ariz., retreat. That also served as a nod to such key constituencies as business leaders (Romney), Indian-Americans (Jindal) and Floridians (Crist).
The biggest subset of the list are people whose names are leaked by those loyal to the would-be veeps themselves, or names that are just thrown out, period, by some pundit trying to fill the ever-swelling reservoir of news devoted to politics. In the resulting noise machine, the list of the Great Mentioned can seem to include pretty much any political figure not named Larry Craig or Eliot Spitzer.
And will, inevitably, include Sam Nunn.
Never mind that Nunn left the senate in 1997, that he has never actually been picked or ever said he wanted the job. Or that he recently called it "highly improbable" that he would be asked by Obama, or that he would want to return to government at all. (He declined comment for this article.)
Columnists (The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan), party elders (Jimmy Carter himself) and allegedly in-the-know leakers continue to tout Nunn for the same reasons their forebears did when Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis were seeking balance for their tickets in 1984 and 1988. (Nunn was mentioned less frequently as a potential running mate for Bill Clinton, Al Gore or John Kerry, but rest assured he was mentioned, according to our good friend, Mr. Lexis-Nexis.)
As a historical marker, Nunn publicly removed himself from consideration by Mondale in 1984. His demurral barely caused a ripple then, compared to, say, the airtime and bandwidth expended this month when Ohio’s governor, Ted Strickland, publicly struck himself from whatever Obama running mate list he may or may not have been on. Potential running mate chatter accounted for 19 percent of campaign stories in the first week in June, according to weekly reports conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That compares with 1 percent during the first week of April.
"The ultimate fascination with ‘veepstakes’ is as much about who is on the list as much as who might actually be chosen," said Mark Jurkowitz, the project’s associate director.
But real inclusion on a real short list can propel a career. McCain, for instance, was enhanced considerably when Bob Dole looked him over as a potential running mate in 1996 before eventually choosing Jack Kemp. Likewise, being named was a great career boon to the senators who were included on Al Gore’s much-publicized short list in 2000 – Kerry, John Edwards and the eventual choice, Joseph Lieberman. "That was a classic example of people benefiting from being on the list," said Ron Klain, a top adviser to the Gore campaign who was closely involved in that search.
Klain said that the process of list-making had not actually changed, so much as the daily diet of political coverage had. "Every little thing is covered so much more," he said, adding that the public now approaches politics with a supersize appetite for information, regardless of its quality or relevance. He invokes a football analogy. "Before, if you followed the NFL, it was enough just to know the player," Klain said. "Now, more fans tend to know who the strength coach is for the Baltimore Ravens."
Todd, whose ubiquity as a running-mate handicapper at his network is akin to Mel Kiper Jr.'s as an NFL draft expert on ESPN, said that all the time and energy devoted to the veepstakes these days is well spent. The actual job of vice president, he said, has never been more important. "Al Gore and Dick Cheney have redefined the vice presidency, probably forever," he said. "This is no small deal."
Ralph Reed, the Republican strategist, said recent nominees had redoubled their vetting procedures after witnessing the experiences of Mondale and George H.W. Bush in 1984 and 1988. Both saw their campaigns tormented by the troubles of their running mates – the financial dealings of Geraldine Ferraro’s husband (in Mondale’s case) and the draft history of Dan Quayle (in Bush’s).
"That elevated the notion of ‘do no harm’ to the golden rule of vice presidential selection," said Reed, who called the vetting of potential running mates today "the equivalent of a total GI tract exam."
List-making itself has become part of the vetting process. Both Ferraro and Quayle were relatively surprising picks, and it’s conceivable that their distractions (or candidacies) could have been avoided if they had been subjected to the scrutiny of the news media that extended time on a speculative list might have brought them today.
Of course, Reed points out that the quality of information disseminated about who is really on the list tends to be quite low. "Everyone is always guessing; that never changes," Reed said, adding a shout-out to a fellow Georgian, none other than Sam Nunn, who he says "would definitely be on the list." That never changes, either.© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.