Madame President?

clinto2016
When will the United States elect its first woman US president?

It is a strange truth.  Nineteen years after Benazir Bhutto was elected in Pakistan, thirty three years after Margaret Thatcher came to power in the UK and a full forty six years after Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India, there has still never been a woman US president.

Bearing in mind, two of these three mentioned above (Gandhi and Bhutto) were subsequently assassinated, perhaps they are not the best example but there are, of course, many others. Cory Aquino in the Philippines, Golda Meir in Israel and Angela Merkel and Julia Gillard both currently Chancellor of Germany and Prime Minister of Australia respectively.

Britons should not be too smug on the subject. As time goes on, Mrs Thatcher’s eleven years in Downing Street look more and more like an historical aberration. Good news some might say. But from an equality viewpoint, it isn’t. A woman prime minister need not be as divisive or as damaging as Thatcher was but we don’t seem to be anywhere near finding this out for sure even after the surge in women MPs since 1997. Nobody looks even close to leading any of the three major parties save perhaps Labour’s Yvette Cooper (or at a stretch, Harriet Harman).

So what about the US? Presidents in the US come to power by two means: as vice presidents who succeed a president to office after they have either died or resigned or (more commonly) through election in their own right.

There have been no women vice presidents so far although two have been picked as running mates by candidates for the two major parties in the past. Geraldine Ferraro was picked as running mate by Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984 but is thought to have had little impact on Mondale’s campaign which was already well on course to suffer a massive 49 state to one defeat to President Ronald Reagan.

Governor Sarah Palin’s selection by Republican candidate Senator John McCain four years ago, in contrast, briefly revived a flagging campaign. Palin’s novelty and relative youth excited the party base. McCain, unlike Mondale, actually had a shot at defeating his opponent. And as a man in his seventies, it was hardly too far-fetched to imagine Palin could soon be president herself.

But the excitement didn’t last. Palin soon emerged as a totally unsuitable candidate, as ignorant as she was gaffe-prone. Despite being a former beauty contest entrant (coincidentally in 1984, the same year as the Mondale-Ferraro campaign) for once there seemed little sexist about her downfall. McCain lost and despite the angry denials by the idiotic John Bolton on the BBC’s 2008 election coverage, Palin helped him lose.

The real loser in 2008 was perhaps not McCain or Palin, however, but Hillary Clinton. Had she ran in 2004 against an enfeebled Bush she might have won. Even the unimpressive Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry came close to toppling Bush that year.

Instead, she waited until the race was clear of incumbents in 2008. This would have worked normally but she completely misjudged the strength of Obama’s candidacy and arrogantly fought the election as if the nomination was hers by right. The voters reacted against both this and her support for the war in Iraq.

It is doubtful she would have won the November election anyway. There has long been a strong entrenched hostility towards her since her husband’s first presidential campaign in 1992 and much of this undeniably has a strong misogynist element. She would also have been hampered by the Whitewater scandal and other baggage from the Clinton years.

But we’ll probably never know. After all, Obama’s 2008 victory was certainly against the odds too. It seems unlikely now that the secretary of state, already well into her sixties, will ever sit in the White House as president.

2012 has thus far proven a less thrilling race with Obama less dazzling than in 2008 and Governor Mitt Romney clearly a loser from the outset.

Perhaps it’s a shame Sarah Palin did not run this time after all. At least it would have been amusing.

Picking the right running mate.

With the ghastly Rick Santorum out of the race, the way ahead is virtually clear for Mitt Romney to secure the Republican nomination for the US presidency. But who should Romney pick for his all important running mate?

1) Choosing a potential successor: This should, of course, be the only real reason for picking a running mate. Once the election is one the new Vice President will be literally a heartbeat away from serious power. Vice Presidents succeeded to the presidency mid-term (due to illness or resignation) five times in the 20th century alone.

2) To appease a defeated foe: Primary contests can be messy and like Jed Bartlet picking the defeated John Hoynes in The West Wing, giving the loser a place on the ticket can (in theory) help smooth things over. Thus JFK opted for the defeated LBJ in 1960 and the unsuccessful Democratic nominee John Kerry picked runner up John Edwards to run with him in 2004. It only goes so far though. A particularly vicious primary battle wrecks any chance of even feigning unity. Obama thus didn’t pick Hillary Clinton as his running mate in 2008 (although she did become Secretary of State when he won). President Gerald Ford didn’t pick his defeated primary challenger Ronald Reagan when a vacancy on the ticket arose in 1976. Likewise, when Reagan did get the nomination himself four years later he didn’t pick former President Ford as his No.2 as some had expected. Some wounds just won’t heal. For similar reasons, Romney may not pick Santorum to run with him this time. Particularly, as he’s awful.

3) To appeal to women: Outgunned by the charismatic Senator Barack Obama, the flagging Senator John McCain targeted a politically unrepresented group: women, when he picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his No.2 in a bid to revive his lacklustre 2008 campaign. It worked…at first. McCain actually led Obama as late as September. But as Governor Palin’s shortcomings became apparent, the McCain ticket was ultimately overwhelmed to the point that the choice derailed the campaign. Choosing the first ever female running mate Geraldine Ferraro similarly didn’t stop Democrat Walter Mondale losing 49 out of 50 states to President Reagan in 1984.

4) Pick someone older and wiser: The forty something Obama went for the more experienced sixty five year old Senator Joe Biden in 2008. Governor George W. Bush picked his daddy’s former Defence Secretary Dick Cheney in 2000, despite the fact he had already had four heart attacks.

5) Provide some youthful vigour: Alternatively, an older candidate may choose someone much younger to balance the ticket. The precedents for this aren’t encouraging though. Popular sixtysomething Republican candidate and war hero, General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower was ultimately harmed by his choice of the thirty-nine-year-old Richard Nixon in 1952 who was widely distrusted over his murky role in McCarthyism and a notoriously dirty 1950 California Senate campaign. Likewise, George HW Bush was damaged by his selection of the young but gaffe-prone Dan Quayle in 1988 although like Ike still managed to win the election. John McCain and the younger, inexperienced and politically maladroit Sarah Palin were not so lucky twenty years later.

6) To control them: Some suggest that having been vice president for eight years himself, George HW Bush picked Dan Quayle precisely because he felt Qwuayle was too stupid to manipulate his position to his own advantage. The Watergate-damaged President Richard Nixon is also believed to have opted for the clumsy Gerald Ford as the new VP in 1973 because he thought Ford’s appointment as the next in line made his own impeachment less likely. LBJ had once famously described Ford as being “unable to walk and fart at the same time” without falling over and Nixon reckoned Congress wouldn’t dare make Ford President. The strategy failed: Nixon had to resign in 1974 and Ford became President anyway. He twice fell over in public before leaving office in January 1977.

7) So they can control you: Twelve years after his father picked Dan Quayle, the less experienced George W. Bush requested Dick Cheney produce a list of possible running mates during 2000. Cheney came back with the answer: himself. Under Bush, the more experienced Cheney became the most powerful Vice President in US history.

8) Because mistakes do happen!: Picking the wrong running mate can be fatal. Democrat George McGovern’s heavy 1972 defeat became a certainty when he was forced to drop his first choice of running mate Thomas Eagleton after revelations emerged about his health background. Eagleton was replaced with JFK’s son-in-law (and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s future father-in-law)Sargent Shriver, but the damage had already been done. Sarah Palin may also have helped defeat the McCain campaign last time. Even when a candidate goes onto win, a Veep who is distrusted (Eisenhower’s Number Two “Tricky Dicky” Nixon or Nixon’s own Vice President Spiro Agnew who resigned over tax evasion charges in 1973) or gaffe prone (Dan Quayle, Joe Biden) can still be a source of embarrassment.

The precedents are clear: if Mitt Romney wants to win, he should choose carefully.