Monday, April 16, 2012

The sordid history of VP picks

All that is left now in the presidential race is for Mitt Romney to pick his vice presidential candidate. That an a lot of polling and horserace reporting.
But while VP picks tend not to have a significant impact on an election outcome, I still find it intriguing how we seem recently to have had a whole string of really wretched and horrific VP picks by both parties - Dan Quayle, Joe Lieberman, Sarah Palin, John Edwards....
But it didn’t used to be that way. The VP slot used to be considered the on deck circle for the presidency with Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon all being prime examples. During modern times, you might turn back to Richard Nixon’s first VP choice of Spiro Agnew as an example of a bad choice. But I don’t think it was considered a bad pick at first, but only after the scandals that came in Nixon’s second term that led to Gerald Ford becoming the first person to ever assume the presidency without ever having been voted on by the electorate.
There were not a lot of problems with VP choices back then - George McGovern’s choice of Thomas Eagleton being a rare exception. Walter Mondale, tapped by Jimmy Carter, went on to win his party’s nomination for president. Reagan’s choice of George Bush launched a political dynasty. Even Mondale’s choice of Geraldine Ferraro was seen as a politically smart move at the time.
So the real trouble seems to have started with Dan Quayle who was instantly panned the moment he stepped into the limelight. And even though Bush won anyway, Quayle was not able to build up any political capital out of his tenure as VP and saw his post-VP presidential campaign flameout almost unnoticed by the political mainstream.
However, Mike Dukakis’ choice of Lloyd Bentsen was almost universally praised, even though it did not help him win the election. And the next set of VP candidates - Al Gore and Jack Kemp - were considered good choices all around.
Then in 2000 we had Al Gore choosing the conservative Joe Lieberman while Dick Cheney chose himself to be VP for George W. Bush. In retrospect, Lieberman was a lousy choice for Gore and may have cost him the election. Cheney, on the other hand, while considered to be one of the worst VPs of all time by most liberals, proved to be highly influential and powerful in office as opposed to the hapless and largely ineffectual Quayle.
And even though Lieberman did everything he could afterwards to stab his party in the back, he was not as bad of a choice in retrospect as John Edwards was for John Kerry. We now know that Edwards was carrying on an affair at the time that has since landed him in court facing felony counts of misuse of campaign funds.
Not to be outdone, however, Republicans turned around the next election and chose Sarah Palin, who managed to turn herself into a political celebrity even as the presidential ticket she was on crashed and burned.
Presently, despite the best efforts of Republicans to characterize Barack Obama’s VP as a loose cannon, Joe Biden has proved to be a pretty steady and reliable asset to the campaign.
So now all eyes will be on Romney as he weeds through a long list of potential VP picks looking for one that could satisfy the Tea Party base without scaring away even more moderates - assuming there are any left at this point.