The vice president: warm piss or fifth wheel?
“The vice presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm piss.” What does that say about the presidential nominee’s opinion of his running mate? The quote is from John Nance Garner after serving eight years as FDR’s Veep. Abraham Lincoln’s first veep, Hannibal Hamlin, said the same thing more tactfully. “I am only a fifth wheel of a coach and can do little for my friends.” History bears out Hamlin and Garner. To wit:
Lincoln chose Hamlin from Maine when most Americans lived east of the Alleghenies. Hamlin was well-liked in the east, generally regarded as competent, and was a staunch abolitionist. Lincoln was not seen as a staunch abolitionist. The two men first met each other after the election and only saw each other a few times.
Harry Truman was friends with Garner. Harry yielded to FDR’s request to be VP for the fourth term for the sake of party unity. Harry wasn’t seeking the presidency but knew it could fall on him.
Richard Nixon was picked for Dwight Eisenhower by party insiders. Ike never cared for Nixon. This was made blindingly clear at a press conference, when Ike was asked to name one major idea of Nixon’s that Ike followed. Ike, scratching his head, said “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”
John F. Kennedy picked Johnson for both ticket balancing and politics. Kennedy needed help in the south where he already had three strikes against him...Yankee, Catholic, and liberal. The South liked Johnson, a Texan. Perhaps more important was the bitter primary election between Kennedy and Johnson. JFK would have to deal with a vindictive Johnson as Senate majority leader. With Johnson on the ticket, Senator Mike Mansfield of Oregon, a Democratic team player would be majority leader.
LBJ chose Hubert Humphrey based on his appeal to the Democrat’s liberal base which never really accepted LBJ, despite his enormous success in pushing through their agenda. Even in 1964, there were Democrats urging JFK’s brother, Bobby, to run. Humphrey was a lifelong liberal and not a fan of the Kennedys. So LBJ chose Humphrey as VP which blunted any 1964 push towards Kennedy and made LBJ seem more liberal.
Nixon appeared to have picked Spiro T. Agnew as an insurance policy against any impeachment. Also, when campaigning, Agnew could “take the low road,” while Nixon would appear on his version of the “high road.” When re-election came in 1972, before Watergate had become a major issue, John Erlichman, Nixon’s top domestic advisor, asked Nixon why he kept Agnew. Nixon replied "No assassin in his right mind would kill me because they would get Agnew as President.” (See Witness to Power: The Nixon Years, by John Ehrlichman.) Nixon reportedly made a similar statement about VP Gerald Ford, after Agnew resigned.
Jimmy Carter, a moderate southern Democratic outsider, chose Mondale, a liberal northern Democratic insider. Carter’s choice was strictly for ticket balancing. It was based on Mondale’s ability to deliver liberal votes everywhere, votes that may otherwise may have stayed home or been cast for some minor leftish candidate.
Ronald Reagan’s choice of George H.W. Bush was also ticket-balancing. However, in Bush’s case he also contributed extensive insider connections that helped considerably with the organizational politics of getting elected. For example, Bush’s longtime very good friend, James Baker, would serve as Reagan’s first Chief of Staff and stayed until the Gipper was re-elected.
George H.W. Bush appears to have chosen Dan Quayle for three reasons, none flattering. Quayle was conservative relative to G.H.W.B, so ticket-balancing was one likely motive. Quayle’s qualifications were put down in his classic exchange with Michael Dukakis’s running mate Lloyd Bentsen. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NRCWbFFRpnY). Others suggest that, like Nixon, Bush 41 needed an insurance policy because of the Iran-Contra investigations that could have dragged Bush into impeachment proceedings.
The third reason for Quayle came to me totally out of the blue: In 1994, I attended a market research conference. At a break-out session on polling, one knowledgeable speaker hypothesized the following: One of Bush’s closest advisers was his pollster Robert Teeter. Teeter owed much of his success to Quayle’s father, James, whose publishing business gave a young Robert Teeter an opportunity to show what a good pollster he was. The publications included the Indianapolis Star and the Arizona Republic. Later, this hypothesis was corroborated twice in the Los Angeles Times. The first was on Aug. 19, 1988, and then in Teeter’s obituary on June 15, 2004. The earlier article hints at the above, and the obituary shows that 16 years after the Bush-Quayle ticket won, this story hadn’t been debunked.
Bill Clinton ran as what was called a “new Democrat”...not anti-business, not “tax the rich,” and for doing something about the national debt. Al Gore, despite being from a neighboring southern state, is a Harvard-educated liberal. So Gore added ideological balance.
Barack Obama appears to have chosen Joe Biden because he really needed Delaware’s three electoral votes. Also, because Biden misses lots of opportunities to end his speeches, he makes Obama seem like a better speaker than he is. A third reason could be Biden’s tendency to keep a least one foot somewhere other than on the floor. This has provided great openings for Obama to make quick decisions on issues where he has appeared to be hedging. That seemed like too neat a charade on same-sex marriage.
The point is that as unbelievable as it may seem, history suggests the choice of a VP running mate has precious little connection with who could run our country “just in case.” It has a lot to do with making a decision about political marketing, and secondarily about keeping the job “just in case.” Isn’t that comforting!
In short, Mitt Romney needs someone who can deliver votes in key electoral states; Florida and Ohio are two of the biggest. Nationally there are plenty of qualified, ticket-balancing Republicans, including women and minorities. But only U.S. Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida come to mind as ones who meet the electoral vote delivery test. Amazing for a nation with over 300 million people!
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