The official resignation
of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin takes me away from my crossword-by-the-pool this early July… as I marvel at the rise and decline of a modern phenomenon– not since Ronald Miller’s incredible journey in “Can’t Buy Me Love”
have we seen anyone go from low status to high status to no status.
No matter what eventually happens to America’s #1 Hockey Mom…she definitely has made her mark on our nation’s most exclusive club that most members wouldn’t choose to be in–vice presidential candidates. Where does she rank in those that dreamed to be a phone call away? I broke down the VP nominees since 1960 (sorry, I can’t justify debating the if Estes Kefaufer or John Sparkman was the better running mate for Stevenson against Eisenhower–I get drowsy just typing this sentence).
Regardless of the candidate’s politics…there are a few fundamental questions regarding each one: Did the running mate bring credibility to the ticket? Did they deliver states from a region the presidential candidate didn’t come from? Did they avoid major embarrassment, faux pas, indictments and shock therapy?
I separated the candidates into three categories:
Difference-makers: these are the candidates who delivered states (legally of course) and regions… and every so often changed the dynamic of the race.
LBJ– (Kennedy, 1960)… the classic VP blueprint–balancing experience and geography to give JFK a foothold in the south in one of the tightest races ever. Without Johnson… Texas (24 electoral votes) and the south are suddenly on the table and the New Frontier looks awfully different. The JFK-LBJ tandem was the Goldfinger of presidential tickets…ever since then we’ve seen the formula repeated–with the impact far from matched.
Gore-(Clinton, 1992)… far from a slamdunk against George H. W. Bush, the choice of Al Gore gave the Arkansas governor credibility (the second-term Tennessee Senator was nationally known having run for President in ’88) and the ticket a monopoly on the baby boomer generation. Coupled with Perot’s weird withdrawal the week of the Democratic Convention, a campaign in trouble turned the corner and found a bridge if not to the 21st century–at least to the White House.
Bentsen– (Dukakis, 1988)… “You’re no Jack Kennedy”–hands down one of the money slams of all time. The Dems tried to replicate 1960’s Mass-Tex tandem to no avail– but he gave energy to a campaign that excited nobody. Many preferred the GD Spradlin lookalike (actor who played the corrupt senator in Godfather II, the Landryesque coach in North Dallas Forty and evil hoops coach in One On One) as president instead of Dukakis or Bush.
Mondale-(Carter, 1976)…the Minnesota Senator gave the outsider Jimmy Carter an anchor inside the beltway and someone from the midwest to balance the ticket–and he more than held his own against Bob Dole in the debate.
Bush– (Reagan, 1980)… solidified Reagan’s base and gave the Republicans a unified front– while making sure that Gerald Ford’s proposed “co-presidency” fiasco wouldn’t happen. Yes, he said he “kicked some ass” after debating Ferraro in ’84, but he caused minimal problems on the campaign trail.
Sometimes the VP choice has minimal impact regardless of the choice… the following choices weren’t hot or cold–just lukewarm.
Lieberman-(Gore, 2000)…in the shadow of the Monica Lewinsky scandal the Vice President had to try to figure out how to get credit for Clinton’s “on the field triumphs” while distancing himself from the “off the field tragedies“–and he found the perfect running mate in the first Democratic Senator to publicly blast the President for the Lewinsky situation. Unfortunately Gore’s sighing during his debate with Bush and inability to carry his own home state of Tennessee made Florida the focus.
Cheney-(GW Bush, 2000)…many were mystified when the leader of the search for Bush’s runningmate ended with himself. His extensive experience inside the beltway as Chief of Staff as well as Defense Secretary gave the ticket stability (GWB having just six years total experience in government); he then went on to behave like the prototypical VP candidate with no major gaffes or issues. The best thing about the two VP candidates in 2000 was they knew well enough to get out of the way and allow the real entertainers (Bush & Gore) to take center stage.
Humphrey-(Johnson, 1964)…seriously, nobody was going to beat the Democrats that year. Least of all Barry Goldwater. Hubert Horatio provided LBJ with some humor horseriding on the President’s ranch. If anything, his “promotion” robbed the party of one of their better minds in the Senate…and helped propel Walter Mondale to the national stage (he’d leave his post as Minnesota Attorney General to take Humphrey’s seat).
Muskie-(Humphrey, 1968)…as unbeatable as they were in ’64, a chaotic campaign marked by Eugene McCarthy’s NH surprise, LBJ withdrawing, RFK’s assassination and the chaos on the convention floor seemed to work against the Democrats four years later. Oh, and George Wallace split away the party’s once-solid south. At least Maine’s favorite son delivered his state’s four electoral votes. Problem was, there weren’t any other obvious choices from a state that would effectively balance the ticket (San Francisco mayor Joseph Alioto the only remote possibility)–although it should be noted Alabama football coach Bear Bryant received one and a half votes in the presidential convention balloting.
Dole-(Ford, 1976)… one of the few situations worse than the Democrats in ’68 came eight years later for the other party…in the wake of Watergate, Pardons and Whip Inflation Now Gerald Ford faced Jimmy Carter a battered candidate by a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan. While the conservative senator from Kansas helped Ford lock down the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states, he caused a stir by blaming Democratic presidents for World Wars I & II, Korea and Vietnam. I’m trying to see the link between Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare and Woodrow Wilson…or at least maybe there was something between Japan’s imperialistic designs and FDR. At least nobody lied about Dole’s record in ’76.
Kemp-(Dole, 1996)… Clinton-Gore’s Bridge to the 21st Century ran right through a ticket that pit a pair of ideological opposites…Dole an arch-conservative all about the balanced budgets against Kemp the supply-side economist. The ex-Buffalo Bills quarterback actually was well received on the campaign trail; in fact more than once Kemp was introduced with the enthusiasm befitting the presidential candidate instead of the running mate. Unfortunately for the topsy-turvy ticket at odds with itself, their fate resembled that of Kemp’s hometown Bills earlier that decade–second place.
Biden-(Obama, 2008)…after a mantra of change in the primaries… the Democrats chose a six-term Senator from Delaware (gotta love those three electoral votes) to provide national security and foreign policy experience to the ticket. While Biden’s history included a semi-plagiarized campaign speech in 1988…there were no major gaffes and he was almost an afterthought--according to Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, Biden was only included in 5% of the news coverage of the race. He wasn’t even the most popular Joe involved—that honor belonging to “Joe the Plumber”, aka Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher.
Edwards– (Kerry, 2004)…the Massachussetts Senator had narrowed his VP choices to three candidates from states that had either voted for Bush or had come close (Gore won Iowa by 0.31%): Missouri Congressman Dick Gephart, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and former primary rival/North Carolina Senator John Edwards. The former litigator’s selection was hailed by party regulars–but his inexperience was focused on during the general campaign. Edwards’ running in the primaries was also used as a detraction: in the VP Debate, Dick Cheney told Edwards they had never met because of Edwards’ frequent absences from the Senate–although videotaped proof existed that had Cheney and Edwards shaking hands at an official event. Still, Kerry/Edwards failed to carry North Carolina–or any of its bordering states. If they had just taken the Carolinas in addition to their other states, they would have won.
Ferraro–(Mondale, 1984)…”morning in America” meant curtains for Mondale. While his choice of the New York Representative was an inspired one, it came against the backdrop of the Democrats looking like they were pandering to whichever group would net them the most votes– while using the VP spot as a way to , gain votes isn’t a new thing (back in the day there always seemed to be a New York or Ohio feel to the ticket), it seemed like that year they were just dropping all pretenses.
Lodge (Nixon, 1960)… there’s nothing so brilliant as nominating a VP from the same home state as the opposing party’s presidential candidate–especially when he lost to said candidate eight years ago in a senate race. Did Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. bring anything dynamic to the 20th century’s watershed race? To paraphrase then-President Eisenhower, if you give me a week I might think of one. Nixon should have tapped NY governor Nelson Rockefeller instead.
Embarrassments: somewhere these people’s pictures are warnings to prospective nominees– these few should have stuck to mowing lawns and playing late night poker instead of buying Cindy Mancini a suede outfit.
Miller (Goldwater, 1964)… yes, he was from New York–but when a VP candidate appears in American Express “Do you know me” commercials after the election…you’ve got problems. When you have difficulty getting re-elected in one’s own district…you’ve got problems. Why not Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton? The primary reason Miller was picked was because according to Goldwater -“he drives [President] Johnson nuts”. So not only did they go on to lose spectacularly, Goldwater robbed his party of a congressional thorn in the side of LBJ–Miller would never return to the House.
Agnew- (Nixon, 1968)… one of the classic “who?” choices as VP that mystified conventional wisdom. Unfortunately we eventually discovered who he was–from being the White House’s hatchet man (does the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism” ring a bell?) to pleading nolo contendre to criminal charges of tax evasion and money laundering— we wish he was simply not famous instead of infamous. Remarkably, he didn’t really hurt Nixon’s campaign.
Quayle- (GHW Bush, 1988)–Potatoe. “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”. Murphy Brown. “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind.” The youthful senator from Indiana at first seemed like any other unknown thrust into the national political spectrum. Thank goodness he surpassed everyone’s expectations and became a national punchline for four years. If anything his selection called Bush-41’s judgement into question…if this was his choice for VP, what other decisions will we have to worry ourselves about?
Palin (McCain, 2008)–the irony of being parodied on “Saturday Night Live” was that during and after the campaign it seemed as though the Alaska Governor was the one not ready for prime time. It didn’t help that it appeared as though the SNL bunch had it in for her–or that she was all too easy to parody. It could have been a choice that pushed voters to McCain… instead it was one that had everyone scratching their heads–and wondering if this Maverick wasn’t the top gun they needed in Washington. If anything it grounded the A-4 pilot’s campaign permanently.
Eagleton (McGovern, 1972)–the gold standard of bad vice presidential choices…his failure to disclose the fact he’d had shock therapy or had been hospitalized for mental health problems stole whatever momentum the campaign had–and then he put the engine into reverse by withdrawing after McGovern said he’d back him 1000%. But his killer blow to the Democrats hopes came in a comment he gave under anonymity to columnist Bob Novak–
“The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot,” the senator said. Once middle America — Catholic middle America, in particular — finds this out, he’s dead.” McGovern then became known as the candidate of “amnesty, abortion and acid.”
One of the few instances of harming a campaign from the inside and the outside.