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Opinion | The One Thing Trump Knows He Wants in a Running Mate

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Donald Trump has yet to choose a running mate for his third attempt to win the White House. But he does seem to have at least one litmus test for anyone who hopes to play the part of Mike Pence in a second Trump administration: You cannot say that you’ll accept the results of the 2024 election.

Trump has not laid this out explicitly, although he has already said that he will not commit to honoring the outcome in November. “If everything’s honest, I’ll gladly accept the results. I don’t change on that,” the former president said in a recent interview with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “If it’s not, you have to fight for the right of the country.” We know, from the 2020 election, that anything short of a Trump victory is, for Trump, tantamount to fraud. He has also said that he would not rule out the possibility of political violence. “It always depends on the fairness of an election,” he told Time magazine in another recent interview.

There is no need for Trump to say anything else; all the Republicans vying to stand by his side understand that they’ll lose their shot if they accept the basic democratic norm that a loss cannot be overturned after the fact. When asked multiple times if he would accept the results of the 2024 election, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina — one of the leading contenders in the race to be Trump’s running mate — would only repeat a single, rehearsed statement. “At the end of the day, the 47th president of the United States will be President Donald Trump.”

(Watching Scott’s performance, one half-expects him to also tell his interlocutor, “Donald Trump is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”)

Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota avoided a similar question, telling CNN that there were a “huge number of irregularities” in the 2020 election and stating that he was “looking forward to next January when Vice President Harris certifies the election for Donald Trump.”

Other vice-presidential contenders have not yet had the opportunity to show Trump their loyalty to his election denialism. One assumes that if they are given the chance, they will.

The obvious point to make here is that Scott and Burgum demonstrate the strength of Trump’s grip on the Republican Party. The less obvious point is that by essentially demanding this particular ideological commitment from prospective vice-presidential nominees, Trump is making a real break with political tradition.

First, let’s talk about the vice presidency. The office itself is one of the clearest examples of a constitutional afterthought in the American political system.

Although the framers of the Constitution gave considerable time and attention to the presidency — its role, its structure, its method of election — there is little evidence of any particular discussion relating to the vice presidency.

“In short,” the political scientist Jody C. Baumgartner observes in “The American Vice Presidency: From the Shadow to the Spotlight,” “it seems as if the framers did not deliberately set out to create a vice presidency as part of the constitutional scheme of governance.” Instead, the vice presidency emerged as the natural solution to a set of problems: Who would take the reins of government if the president were indisposed? Who would resolve a tie in the Senate? And how can we force presidential electors to vote for a candidate other than their state’s favored son?

The vice presidency comes with a handful of enumerated responsibilities that reflect the extent to which it has been grafted on to the constitutional system as a last-minute addition. “The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate,” says the Constitution, “but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.” Also, “In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President.”

That’s it. There is not much more to the role, even after subsequent amendments to the Constitution clarified the vice president’s duties. One consequence of this is that the power, prestige and influence of the vice presidency has waxed and waned according to the seasons of American politics. Broadly speaking, the vice president was a relatively minor figure in American politics for most of the 19th century and into the 20th — there is a reason that Harry Truman described most vice presidents as “about as useful as a cow’s fifth teat” — and a much more influential one in the postwar period, as the office’s responsibility and influence grew with that of the president.

But as much as the vice presidency has had a limited role in governing the nation — except on those occasions when the vice president ascends to the main office on account of tragedy or misfortune — the vice-presidential spot on a presidential ticket has often been of enough electoral significance to give real weight to the choice.

For political parties and their presidential nominees, the vice-presidential nomination has traditionally been an opportunity to “balance” the ticket, geographically, ideologically or in terms of experience.

There are a few famous examples. The Republican Party that nominated Abraham Lincoln, a moderate from Illinois, paired him with Hannibal Hamlin, a Radical Republican from Maine. The Democratic Party that nominated John F. Kennedy, the young liberal senator from Massachusetts, paired him with Lyndon B. Johnson, the “master of the Senate” from Texas. More recently, Ronald Reagan’s choice of George H.W. Bush was an effort to bridge the divide between conservative and moderate Republicans, while Barack Obama’s choice of Joe Biden provided multiple contrasts: of age, of experience and of race.

Trump embraced the logic of balancing in his first campaign, choosing Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana as a sign of his commitment to the interests of conservative ideologues and the priorities of conservative evangelicals, especially on abortion and the federal judiciary. If he were to embrace the logic of balancing a second time, he would choose a running mate who had some distance from the MAGA movement, someone who could pose as a “normal” Republican, uninterested in the most extreme commitments associated with Trump.

That is almost certain not to happen. Whether it is Scott or Burgum or Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio or even the noted canine-killer Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Trump will select for loyalty — not to a set of ideas or to the Republican Party, but to his absolute right to power, with or without the consent of the governed. And this vice president will be expected to do what Pence would not: to keep Trump in office no matter what the Constitution says.

The vice presidency may have been an afterthought for the framers; they didn’t think the role would amount to much. The vice presidency is assuredly not an afterthought for Trump; to him, it means everything.


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