June 24, 2020


America's vice presidents, who now number 48, are a graphic and classic example of political road kill. For a myriad of personal, historical and/or demographic reasons, 34 of them never successfully made it across Pennsylvania Avenue into the White House.

Fourteen of them rose to the presidency and only four (Adams, Jefferson, Van Buren, Bush) became president in their own right, winning elections in 1796, 1800, 1836 and 1988 after serving as the sitting vice president. Of the nine who succeeded to the presidency (Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Arthur, Teddy Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Ford) through the incumbent's assassination, natural death or resignation, only five of them got their party's nomination for the next term, and only four won, in 1904, 1924, 1948 and 1964.

There is an inconsistent, incoherent pattern.

President Dwight Eisenhower (R) was popular in 1960, but vice president Richard Nixon (R) narrowly lost to John Kennedy (D), with the 1958-59 recession and Sputnik not being helpful. Eisenhower was elected in 1952 at age 62. And the youthful (age 43) Kennedy wanted to "get America moving again." We hear that every 4 years.

President Lyndon Johnson's (D) Vietnam War was unpopular in 1968, the "guns and butter" economy beset by inflation, racial riots in the streets, and hippies everywhere, but veep Hubert Humphrey (D) almost beat Nixon because he recast himself as the "pro-peace" candidate. President Ronald Reagan (R) was popular, but veep George H.W. Bush (R) barely beat Mike Dukakis (D) in 1988. President Bill Clinton's (D) 1990s economy was booming, but he got was impeached and veep Al Gore (D) unwisely chose in 2000 not to run on the Clinton record. He lost to George W. Bush (R) because he lost Florida by 500 votes.

And there were others. Vice president Joe Biden (D) wisely chose not to contest Hillary Clinton for the 2008 nomination to succeed Barack Obama (D). The Secretary of State had more heft than the veep. After the Iraq War and the weapons of mass destruction fiasco, veep Dick Cheney (R) was toxic by 2008, just like Bush was). Jimmy Carter vice president Walter Mondale (D) got obliterated by Reagan in 1984. The Carter presidency (1976-80) was a national economic and foreign policy catastrophe, the memory of which time did not diminish. Gerald Ford (R) went from House minority leader to appointed veep to unelected president in the span of one year (1973-74). But Nixon's Watergate crimes and misconduct, runaway inflation, and Ford's bumbling image were fatal in 1976.

And more.

Harry Truman's (D) veep Alben Barkley was ignored in 1952 because he was too old (age 75). Ol' Alben was about 68 years before his time. (By the way, he got himself elected Kentucky senator in 1954 and died in 1955. But remember: That was then, and now is now. Who needs actuarial tables?) Franklin Roosevelt's (D) first veep (1933-41) was "Cactus Jack" Garner, a Texas segregationist who coined the immortal phrase that the American vice-presidency wasn't "worth more than a bucket of warm spit."

Roosevelt probably thought Garner was describing himself, and dumped him when he ran for a third term, replacing him with Henry Wallace, who proved to be a pro-Soviet Union, pro-Stalin, borderline communist. "Appeaser" was the operative term. FDR dumped Wallace in 1944, and Truman became president in 1945 less than a month after becoming vice president.

And then there is Charles Dawes, an Illinois industrialist who was Calvin Coolidge's (R) veep (1925-29) and was pushed aside for president by Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover. An lastly, the eminently forgettable Indiana non-entity Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's (D) veep (1913-21), best remembered for his opinion that "what America needs is a good 5-cent cigar." The rigors of World War I, post-war inflation, and Wilson's massive unpopularity doomed Marshall as a 1921 candidate. Democrats picked Ohio governor James Cox. Interestingly, after Wilson's 1919 stroke, the president's wife ran the country. Marshall was nowhere to be found.

The road is obviously littered with veep-kill and veep-reject. Going back to the 1900s, and definitely in the 1800s, vice presidents were considered inconsequential. They got picked for factional or geographic factors - to "balance the ticket." They were never picked because they were thought to be of presidential caliber, or a worthy future successor. They were never the nominee's actual rival. They were often picked because they could carry their state.

That began to evolve differently in the mid-1900s. Eisenhower (1952) picked Nixon because he was young (39), fervently anti-communist and could deliver California. Kennedy (1960) picked LBJ because he was Senate majority leader and could deliver Texas. Nixon (1968) picked Spiro Agnew because he was least the unacceptable to Strom Thurmond and fit into his "Southern Strategy." Humphrey (1968) picked Ed Muskie because he made Agnew look non-credible, as in not-too-smart, not because he needed Maine's votes.

And then the appeasement era began.

Ford (1976) picked Bob Dole to appease Reaganite conservatives. Carter (1976) picked Mondale because he had Washington experience and to appease liberals. Reagan (1980) picked Bush, who was a primary rival, to appease moderates. Mondale (1984) picked a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, just to do something different. Bush (1988) picked obscure Indiana senator Dan Quayle because he wanted a veep of lesser stature. Michael Dukakis (1988), the Massachusetts governor, picked moderate (and older) Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen because he was a Washington heavyweight (in contrast to Quayle), had stature and could put Texas in play. (Bentsen had defeated Bush for senator in 1970.)

Then the era of image-building began to rival stature-adding commenced. Arkansas governor Clinton (1992) picked neighboring Tennessee senator Al Gore, wanting to create a young and moderately liberal team. Despite the Iraq War "win," their imagery worked, and they beat Bush-Quayle (which, had they won, would have positioned Quayle to run for president in 1996). How fortuitous. Bush the younger (2000) picked the older Dick Cheney, his dad's defense secretary (1989-92), while Gore broke ground by picking liberal Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman. John Kerry (2004) broke no ground by picking North Carolina senator John Edwards, and they lost to Bush-Cheney.

The next phase is racial and gender balanced.

In 2008 ground was cratered, not just broken. Obama, an Illinois senator for 4 years, beat former First Lady and New York senator Hillary Clinton. No question about it: Obama needed a white guy (not a woman) for veep. He picked Joe Biden, a 36-year Delaware senator of no great distinction, although he was judiciary chairman in 1991 when Clarence Thomas was confirmed and Anita Hill was trashed. Biden, then age 66, was deemed suitable standby equipment. And he measured up to all non-expectations. Republican John McCain (2008) chose obscure Alaska governor Sarah Palin for veep. Remember her? She could see Russia from her house.

Amid the 2006-2008 real estate and financial meltdown, Obama-Biden crushed McCain-Palin. Palin provided no boost, and was demonized by the media as another Agnew/Quayle.

Clinton in 2016 needed a white man for veep, and picked Virginia senator Tim Kaine because in their mind a woman/minority ticket would not sell. Trump needed a mainstream/insider conservative, and picked Indiana governor Pence, a former 12-year congressman.

ON TO 2020: Here's an easy prediction: Whoever is elected vice president in 2020 will be president in or before 2024. If it's still Trump-Pence, Pence's future will proceed thusly (1) Given the president's impetuosity, intolerance and/or impatience, the odds are that there will be another impeachment (and a conviction?) if there is another Trump term.

The only other way he becomes president is if Trump dies in office like some other presidents have. Or (3) he can run for and win the 2024 Republican nomination, which is iffy since he's indelibly tied to Trump. And America by then may have real Trump fatigue. But if he's president then, he's the nominee. If not, either senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) or Josh Hawley (R-MO) will challenge him.

Biden will be age 78 on Nov. 20, and he has pledged to pick a woman for veep - thereby boxing himself in. In the environment of 2020, a white male Democrat has to have a woman/minority for veep.

That leaves out Amy Klobuchar (who has already removed herself), Elizabeth Warren and Whitmer and leaves just the following: California senator Kamala Harris, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Washington, D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser and 2018 Georgia governor loser Stacey Abrams, all African-American women with good qualifications. The only other option is Illinois senator Tammy Duckworth.

Let's face it. "Sleepy Joe" is old and is surely a one-termer if elected. Given the stress of the presidency and the economic and COVID 19-related decisions sure to come, he needs to think hard about who should be his vice president.