Ryan for Vice-President: Gamechanger for 2012 (and 2016)
A presidential nominee’s vice-presidential pick, in and of itself, cannot rescue a floundering campaign. But it can affect the race’s context, alter perceptions, and energize various constituencies.
There have been 45 elected U.S. vice-presidents, and two appointees, of whom 14 have succeeded to the presidency – roughly 30 percent. Five incumbents or recently-departed incumbents failed to win the presidency: John Breckinridge in 1860, Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Walter Mondale in 1984, and Al Gore in 2000. Only one defeated vice-presidential candidate – Franklin Roosevelt in 1920 – went on to win the presidency (1932).
A myriad of factors impact a VP pick: Geographical, generational or ideological balance; also, imagery, party unity, the need to carry a particular state or region, inoffensiveness, barter, surgical removal, place-filler, attack dog, showcasing, trailblazer, partner and gravitas. Rarely does a presidential nominee pick a veep with the thought that he’s choosing his successor.
The choice is short-term and immediate: What can my vice-presidential choice do or not do to help me win?
Some classic examples:
In 1900, President William McKinley (R) had New York Governor Teddy Roosevelt foisted upon him because the state’s Republican bosses wanted to get rid of the rambunctious Rough Rider, who was posturing as a “reformer.” They thought the vice-presidency was an ideal burial ground. Roosevelt became president on McKinley’s assassination in 1901.
In 1920, then-President Woodrow Wilson (D) was massively unpopular, despite America’s World War I victory. Inflation was rampant, and Wilson’s League of Nations was rejected by Congress. The Democrats nominated Ohio governor James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt, the U.S. Navy secretary, a distant cousin of Teddy. This was an early instance of showcasing: Democrats knew they were going to lose, but Roosevelt got visibility. He contracted polio in the 1920s, but rebounded to be elected New York’s governor in 1928 and president in 1932.
That year, with victory imminent, the Republican vice-presidential nomination was deemed inconsequential, and the place-filler was Calvin Coolidge..
In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was struggling to get two-thirds of the Democratic convention vote, which was required for nomination. So he bartered the vice-presidency, trading it to U.S. House Speaker John Garner in exchange for Texas’ votes. After being elected, Garner was famously quoted as saying his job “wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit.”
In 1944, Roosevelt, ailing and aging, had not groomed a successor. He dumped Garner in 1940, and Vice President Henry Wallace’s socialist, pro-Soviet Union views disturbed a lot of Democrats, especially Organized Labor. They feared he might succeed to the presidency. So Roosevelt gave a green-light to the convention, and Harry Truman, an obscure and inoffensive Missouri senator, was the choice. Roosevelt died in 1945.
In 1952, when Republicans were lambasting the Truman Administration for “corruption, Korea and communism,” their grandfatherly nominee was retired U.S. Army general and World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower. He was not going to descend into the muck. So Republicans picked Nixon, then a 39-year old California senator, as their “attack dog” veep nominee. His job was to hurl invective and give red meat to the Republican base.
In 1960, Massachusetts senator John Kennedy (D) was up against Nixon. He realized his liberalism and Catholicism would have minimal appeal in the South, that Nixon would carry his home state of California, and that Texas, with 22 electoral votes, was the key to the election. So he offered the vice-presidency to Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson, the majority leader, in the calculated expectation that only a Kennedy-Johnson ticket could carry Texas. Kennedy was right: He won Texas by 46,233 votes (50.5 percent).
Kennedy got 303 electoral votes, to Nixon’s 219. Had Nixon won Texas, Illinois’ 25 electoral votes (which he lost by 8,858 votes), and Missouri’s 10 (which he lost by 9,980 votes), he would have triumphed.
In 1964, Johnson, having succeeded to the presidency on Kennedy’s assassination, was adamantly resistant to entreaties to put Attorney General Robert Kennedy on his ticket. Johnson intuitively knew that would be akin to creating a Frankenstein – a vice-president who would spend all his waking moments undermining Johnson and running for president in 1968 or 1972. Johnson deftly eliminated Kennedy by stating that no cabinet member would be chosen. He picked Humphrey, the Minnesota senator and outspoken liberal. He telegraphed Kennedy a clear message: I’m the president, and Humphrey, not you, will be my successor. Kennedy was elected New York senator, ran for president in 1968, and was assassinated. Humphrey lost to Nixon that year.
In 1968, Nixon was perceived as damaged goods – a two-time loser. But Michigan Governor George Romney’s campaign imploded after he said he was “brainwashed,” and neither conservative California Governor Ronald Reagan nor liberal New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller entered the fray. Nixon was the default nominee, largely because the success of his “Southern Strategy” of locking up the South’s delegations.
The deal was this: South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and his allies had veto power over the vice-president pick and future U.S. Supreme Court nominees. That meant liberals like Illinois Senator Chuck Percy and New York Mayor John Lindsay were scotched. Reagan didn’t want it. So the winnowing process came down to two obscure, undistinguished governors: Spiro Agnew of Maryland and John Volpe of Massachusetts. Nixon picked Agnew, who became his attack dog, and object of ridicule by the news media.
In 1972, Humphrey’s ’68 running-mate, Maine’s Ed Muskie, was thought to be the likely Democratic nominee, and that made Nixon very nervous – precipitating the Watergate break-in. But South Dakota Senator George McGovern surged to the nomination on an unabashedly liberal platform, and picked Tom Eagleton, an obscure, somewhat conservative Missouri senator, for veep. Then it was revealed that Eagleton has electro-shock therapy for depression in the 1960s. McGovern dumped him, and his campaign went from bad to worse. He lost to Nixon by an electoral vote of 520-17.
In 1976, “outsider” Jimmy Carter (D) needed to balance his ticket with a Washington “insider,” and chose Walter Mondale, a Minnesota senator and Humphrey protégé. Mondale was of presidential caliber, and there was no doubt that, if Carter was president through 1984, Mondale would be his successor.
For the Republicans, Gerald Ford, appointed vice-president in 1973 after Agnew resigned, and succeeding to the presidency in 1974 after Nixon resigned, chose Bob Dole, an acerbic Kansas senator, as his attack dog veep. The Ford-Dole ticket, despite the anti-Nixon environment, lost narrowly.
In 1980, Reagan vanquished a coterie of Republicans, including George Bush, for the nomination. As a unifying gesture, Reagan chose the presidential-stature Bush for vice-president, thereby making Bush his likely successor.
In 1984, Democrats’ optimism about beating Reagan had evaporated. The economy had rebounded, Reagan was hugely popular, and Mondale needed a game-changer. So he tabbed Geraldine Ferraro, a Brooklyn congresswoman – the first woman ever chosen for a national ticket. His goal was to energize the women’s vote. But Ferraro’s trailblazing novelty soon subsided. Reagan swamped Mondale 525-13 in the electoral vote.
In 1988, Bush, apparently used to being second-banana for most of his career, chose a third-banana for vice-president: Dan Quayle. It almost cost him the election. The Democratic nominee, Massachusetts’ Mike Dukakis, picked veteran Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen. Many thought the ticket should have been reversed.
In 1992, Bill Clinton (D), of Arkansas, defied convention and picked Al Gore, of Tennessee. No claptrap about generational or geographic “balance.” Clinton’s goal was imagery: Two vigorous, forty-something guys who would invigorate Washington. It worked. They defeated Bush-Quayle 370-168, a stark contrast to Bush’s 426-111 1988 win.
In 1996, Bob Dole (R), at age 73, finally got his shot at the big prize. He needed some generational and ideological balance, so he picked Jack Kemp, a 57-year old former congressman and supply-side economics champion. It was a bust. Clinton-Gore won 379-159.
In 2000, Gore picked Connecticut’s Jewish Senator, Joe Lieberman, expecting that he would lock in the Jewish vote. It almost worked. George W. Bush won Florida by just over 500 votes, and the presidency. In 1988, his father won Florida by 960,746 votes.
In both 2000 and 2008, gravitas – meaning having an elder statesman with foreign policy experience – was the goal of both the younger Bush and Barack Obama. Bush picked ex-defense secretary Dick Cheney, and Obama chose 36-year senator Joe Biden.
And, lastly, there’s 2008. John McCain (R) knew he was losing, and needed a game-changer to jump-start his campaign. In Sarah Palin, he got a trailblazer and attack dog – and ultimately an embarrassment. No Republican could have won the presidency in 2008.
So where does that put Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s (R) running-mate? He’s more seasoned and intelligent than Quayle and Palin. He provides (at age 42) generational balance to Romney (age 65). He has appeal to the conservative base. He is a game-changer. Instead of a referendum on the Obama presidency, which Romney is losing, it’s now a choice between the candidates’ divergent philosophies, which Romney could win.
This much is certain: If Romney-Ryan loses in 2012, Ryan will be the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Russ Stewart is a political analyst for the Chicago Daily Observer. E-mail Russ@russstewart.com or visit his website at www.russstewart.com.