Monday, March 10, 2008

Vice Presidents: “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.”

There is more to the vice-presidential debate between Senators Clinton and Obama than meets the eye. Because the choice of a vice-presidential running mate can significantly change history, it is an important test of a presidential candidate's judgment. But it was not always so.

The first of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four Vice Presidents, John Nance Garner, said: “The Vice Presidency is not worth a pitcher of warm spit.” And Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley described it this way:
It wasn’t a crime exactly. Ye can’t be sint to jail f’r it, but it’s a kind of disgrace. It’s like writing anonymous letters.
In 1900, Republican Party leaders decided to bury the presidential potential of their political foe, New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, in the Vice Presidential cemetery. Alas, for them, the assassination of President William McKinley resurrected him from the Vice Presidential graveyard. Prior to Roosevelt vice presidents routinely served only one term before their consignment to political oblivion.

Until the 1950s, vice presidents may have helped get a president elected, but once elected, they hardly did more than preside over the U.S. Senate and vote in case of a tie unless a president needed a vice president to perform a rare ceremonial function. From Vice President Richard M. Nixon until now, however, vice presidents have become increasingly more important in governing and influencing history.

Today presidential candidates need to consider six criteria in choosing their vice presidential running mates.

Geography. Some presidential candidates balance their state of residence with that of the vice presidential choice. In 1952, for example, on the Republican ticket, President Eisenhower (New York) chose Richard Nixon (California), while on the Democratic ticket, Presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson (Illinois) chose John Sparkman (Alabama).

Ideology. In 1960 the more conservative Richard M. Nixon balanced his ticket by choosing the more liberal Henry Cabot Lodge (Massachusetts).

Religion. As running mates in 1960 and 1968, respectively, a Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy chose a southern Protestant, Lyndon B. Johnson, and a Protestant Hubert Humphrey chose a Roman Catholic Edmund Muskie .

Governance. Ability to help the president govern played a significant role in Bill Clinton’s choice of Al Gore as his running mate. Gore, who had extensive experience in both houses of Congress, which Clinton did not have, brought an understanding of Washington politics to the Clinton administration. The governance criterion also influenced George W. Bush's selection of Dick Cheney as his running mate.

Succession. Ability to succeed the president in the event of a vacancy in the presidency has become more important. In 2000 George W. Bush chose Dick Cheney, who had served in Congress and also as a Cabinet Secretary and Presidential Advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Bush, Sr.

Compatibility and Loyalty. In the cases of Clinton-Gore and Bush-Cheney, compatibility and loyalty became apparent. Clinton selected Gore, a fellow southerner, Southern Baptist and member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Immediately after the 1992 Democratic National Convention, Clinton and Gore began a highly successful bus tour, which helped to cement their compatibility in the public mind. And for eight years Gore effectively participated in many important White House decisions. Bush chose Cheney, whose compatibility and loyalty became increasingly obvious during the Terrorist crises and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Because five Vice Presidents assumed the presidency during the 20th Century by filling a vacancy created through presidential assassination or resignation, the criteria of help in governance, potential successorship, and compatibility and loyalty now stand out as exceedingly important. The Vice Presidents, who assumed the Presidency in this manner, were Theodore Roosevelt after William McKinley’s assassination, Calvin Coolidge after Warren Harding’s death, Harry Truman after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Lyndon Johnson after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Gerald Ford after Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Where once Vice Presidents routinely never ran for President, now they often appear as the heir apparent. Since 1900 ten former Vice Presidents won their party’s nomination for President: Theodore Roosevelt (1904), Calvin Coolidge (1924), Harry Truman (1948), Richard Nixon (1960, 1968), Lyndon Johnson (1964), Hubert Humphrey (1968), Gerald Ford (1976), Walter Mondale (1984), George Bush, Sr. (1988), and Al Gore (2000).

And so it is that John McCain and in all likelihood either Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton or Senator Barack Obama must make critical decisions that could significantly affect history. As pundits pontificate about who their running mates might be, the would-be presidential candidates and party leaders should seriously weigh prospective vice presidential nominees on the scales of these six criteria.

What greater test of a presidential candidate's judgment of personnel than the selection of a vice-presidential running mate?

For additional analysis, please see: Charles W. Dunn, The Seven Laws of Presidential Leadership (Prentice-Hall, 2007).

1 comment:

David McGuire said...

Dr Dunn:

This was a most interesting commentary. I have taken the liberty of posting a link to your discussion of vice presidents on my blog, "Pillsbury History Guy." I look forward to more of your comments as this very unpredictable campaign continues.

David McGuire
Pillsbury Baptist Bible College
Owatonna, Minnesota