Few people today regard the American vice presidency the way John Nance Garner did when he described the job as one that “isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit,” probably a softened version of his actual words.
Yet modern-day politicians would rather talk about arcane parts of the tax code than publicly acknowledge speculation that they’re being mentioned as vice presidential timber. U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from Albuquerque, is one of them.
Heinrich, who endorsed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton back in 2014, is among a couple of dozen names that often surface when political writers and commentators discuss the best bets to become Clinton’s running mate this summer.
Along with Heinrich, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, and the Castro twins of Texas, Congressman Joaquin and Cabinet Secretary Julián of Housing and Urban Development, figure in many of the discussions, none of them more scientific than a coin flip.
Heinrich, 44, a first-term senator, last week was good-natured in deflecting most questions about whether he could be part of the Democrats’ presidential ticket this year.
“I’m in the Draft-Castro-for-VP Club,” Heinrich said during a visit to Santa Fe Community College.
Which Castro twin was he talking about?
“Anyone that’s not me,” Heinrich said.
But now that Clinton has built an imposing lead in her competition with Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, Heinrich stands to receive even more attention.
“He’s certainly highly qualified and would be an attractive addition to the ticket,” said Fred Harris, a former national and New Mexico Democratic Party chairman, who was one of two finalists that Hubert Humphrey considered as his running mate in 1968. Humphrey chose Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, passing over Harris, then a 37-year-old senator from Oklahoma.
Harris said he doubts that Clinton is giving any immediate consideration to a running mate. “It’s kind of bad luck to be thinking about it before you have the nomination,” he said.
Others are not hesitant to discuss the possibilities, floating names and, in some cases, even ranking the possible contenders.
David Mixner, a longtime civil rights champion and Democratic strategist, listed Heinrich as a possibility for vice president four months ago, even before Clinton started running away in the race for delegates.
“The senator is strikingly handsome, intelligent, progressive, [has] strong environmental credentials and speaks fluent Spanish. … A fresh face in a sea of older candidates,” Mixner wrote in a blog on Towleroad.com, operated by Andy Towle of New York City.
An obscure blog called Democratcafe.com ranked Heinrich as first on a list of 15 possible running mates for Clinton. “Voters would feel more soothed in this regard with a younger, more vigorous and energetic running mate for Hillary,” it said.
Heinrich also made a list of possible running mates for Clinton on a website called Willhillarywin.com. It rated the chance of Clinton choosing Heinrich as “low.” Then, in a cliché-riddled squib, it described Heinrich as “a young, highly personable rising star within the Democratic Party.”
Joel Goldstein, a scholar on the vice presidency and a law professor at St. Louis University, said in an interview that Heinrich’s youth may not be a plus. “He’s a first-term senator from a relatively small state. He’s only been in Congress seven years [four in the House of Representatives and three in the Senate]. That’s less than the standard,” Goldstein said.
But Goldstein also said such standards have meant little in recent times. John Edwards of North Carolina was a first-term senator in 2004 when Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry selected him as his running mate. John McCain, the Republican nominee for president in 2008, chose Sarah Palin, who had been Alaska’s governor for less than two years.
Both those tickets lost. Edwards did no harm to Kerry, nor did he inspire voters in 2004. (Edwards, who was married, later was caught in a sex scandal that wrecked him politically.)
As for Palin, she took a beating for her ignorance of government and history.
In one instance that raised questions about McCain’s judgment in picking an inexperienced governor, a network interviewer in 2008 asked Palin: “What insight into Russian actions, particularly in the last couple of weeks, does the proximity of this state [Alaska] give you?”
Palin replied: “They’re our next-door neighbors. And you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska.”
Columnist Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post wrote later that Palin was an attractive, earnest, confident candidate “who is clearly out of her league.”
Palin’s presence on a national ticket became a cautionary tale.
Bert Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Middlebury College in Vermont, Sanders’ home state, said one factor now stands above all others when a presidential nominee chooses a running mate: “You don’t want someone who’s going to do harm,” Johnson said by phone from his campus.
A nominee also will consider regional diversity, demographic diversity and how to shore up constituencies when making his or her choice for vice president, Johnson said.
For that reason, Heinrich cannot be discounted. “He’s someone from a region that Hillary Clinton has to be thinking carefully about right now,” Johnson said.
The Fiscal Times, a website of news and opinion, listed Heinrich as one of 18 possibilities for Clinton’s running mate. Its nutshell description of Heinrich said: “Pros: young, Southwestern. Cons: inexperienced.”
Heinrich last week said he doesn’t want to be vice president. “I love what I’m doing,” he said of being a senator. A husband, father, outdoorsman and hunter, Heinrich said his life would never be the same if he ascended to vice president. “Who wants to be stuck with Secret Service agents for the rest of your life?” he said.
Even so, he said, an offer to be on the national ticket would be hard to turn down.
Historically, that has been the case. Al Gore, after failing in presidential campaigns in 1988 and 1992, said he wouldn’t take the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket. But he accepted when Bill Clinton offered it to him in ’92. After eight years as vice president, Gore was positioned to run again for president in 2000. Gore lost to Republican George W. Bush, son of the president Bill Clinton unseated. The senior Bush also was a vice president, under Ronald Reagan.
The youngest president in American history, Teddy Roosevelt, ascended from the vice presidency. Roosevelt was just 42 when he succeeded President William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901 in Buffalo, N.Y.
Heinrich, a mechanical engineer, has had a rapid rise in politics. Thirteen years ago, he ran for a seat on the Albuquerque City Council. In a field of six candidates, Heinrich took nearly 40 percent of the vote to win easily.
Then he pounced twice when openings occurred in Congress.
In 2008, Republican U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson gave up her Albuquerque-based seat to run for the Senate. Heinrich jumped into the race for Wilson’s old position and won.
Eric Griego, a former state senator and Albuquerque city councilor, said he weighed whether to run for Congress in the 2008 Democratic primary, but Heinrich showed no such hesitation. Griego once remembered that, while he was still evaluating his options, Heinrich plunged in and then competed with tenacity.
Heinrich won re-election to the House in 2010, a big year for Republicans nationally and in New Mexico. Heinrich narrowly defeated Republican Jon Barela by 7,800 votes that year.
At that stage, Heinrich appeared to have solidified his seat in the House for the long term. Then 30-year U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, also a Democrat, announced that he would not seek re-election in 2012.
Heinrich again moved quickly, establishing a hustling campaign organization that blitzed Hector Balderas, then the state auditor, in the Senate primary election. Heinrich faced Wilson in the general election, a race where his charisma was on full display.
Before a debate with Wilson in Las Cruces, ever-studious Heinrich entered the auditorium 20 minutes early to pore over his notes. Resounding cheers greeted him. Heinrich politely acknowledged the crowd, which treated him like a star player entering a stadium, not a politician getting ready to discuss public policy. Then he returned to his notes.
He defeated Wilson by a decisive 6 percentage points, more than 40,000 votes.
John Nance Garner, a Texan known as Cactus Jack, was one of three vice presidents who served with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Garner is remembered mostly for his disparaging words about the vice presidency. But the office also can be a gateway to the top, a fact that escapes no one trying to forecast who will end up on the national tickets.
Harris said Hillary Clinton might want a running mate from the West, given her natural strength in the Northeast and parts of the South. That opens the way for conversation and speculation about the Castro twins, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Heinrich. The talk will only intensify until she makes her choice.