The Green Papers Commentary
 

WHO'S NUMBER TWO?
Speculation runs rampant about who is likely- and not so likely-
to be John Kerry's running mate

Saturday, March 6, 2004

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
TheGreenPapers.com Staff


It would, doubtless, be considered quite improper to omit from an essay on the Senate all mention of the Senate's President; and yet there is very little to be said about the Vice-President of the United States. His position is one of anomalous insignificance and curious uncertainty. Apparently he is not, strictly speaking, a part of the legislature- he is clearly not a member- yet neither is he an officer of the executive. It is one of the remarkable things about him, that it is hard to find in sketching the government any proper place to discuss him. He comes in most naturally along with the Senate to which he is tacked; but he does not come in there for any great consideration. He is simply a judicial officer set to moderate the proceedings of an assembly whose rules he has had no voice in framing and can have no voice in changing. His official stature is not to be compared with that of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. So long as he is Vice-President, he is inseparable officially from the Senate; his importance consists in the fact that he may cease to be Vice-President. His chief dignity, next to that of presiding over the Senate, lies in the circumstance that he is awaiting the death or disability of the President. And the chief embarrassment in discussing his office is , that in explaining how little there is to be said about it one has evidently said all there is to say.--

WOODROW WILSON- Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics [1885]


The Nation's second office was not always so undignified as it appears in the above portrait painted by the young future President of the United States in his doctoral dissertation. Under the original scheme of Presidential Election outlined by the Framers of the Constitution of the United States, the man (and, back in the last years of the 18th Century, it would obviously always be a man) who would occupy the Vice-Presidency was to be no less presidential "timber" than any of the four other contenders for the Presidency the Electoral College (or so the Framers thought) would not outright elect but merely nominate for consideration, every four years, by the U.S. House of Representatives (at least once George Washington was no longer the Nation's Chief Magistrate); the Vice-President would simply be that person among these five good, if not great, men with broad regional support with the most Electoral Votes who did not happen to become the elected President. And, although a John Adams might well opine that, in the Vice-Presidency, "I am nothing, but I might be everything" (thus foreshadowing Woodrow Wilson's notion that the Vice-President's "importance consists in the fact that he may cease to be Vice-President"), the fact is that both he and his successor in that office, Thomas Jefferson, each subsequently became President by election and not succession, suggesting that- had it not been for the rise and influence of national Parties- the Framers' hopes might well have had at least a chance of realization.

The descent toward nadir in the fortunes of the second office that Woodrow Wilson described really dates from the adoption of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States just in time for the 1804 Presidential Election: up through 1800, the Presidential Electors were voting for two men to be President without knowing just who might end up in either high Federal office; from 1804 on, however, these Electors would be voting separately for President and Vice-President and would also know which of those for whom they voted would certainly not become Chief Executive! Thus, the Vice-Presidency became the repository for somewhat lesser men: a throwaway Senator to offset the mere fact that a Party's presidential nominee was a Governor (or vice versa), a Midwesterner from a large State to offset the mere fact that the Party's standard bearer was from a populous State in the Northeast (or vice versa).

The irony is that one of the main reasons the Democrats first adopted the National Convention as a nominating device in 1832 was so that President Andrew Jackson could personally replace the hated John Calhoun as Vice-President with Martin Van Buren and have his Party's imprimatur stamped upon his choice, something that might well have restored at least some dignity to the second office but for the fact that Van Buren himself made no effort to influence the Convention that, four years later, nominated him for the Presidency as to who else should be on the ticket (leaving his Party to choose the rather earthy, colorful and certainly controversial Richard Mentor Johnson as Van Buren's running mate); for the next century, it would be the National Party- and not the Party's presidential nominee- that, through the vehicle of the National Convention (however much controlled by Party bosses), would decide who should run in the second spot on that Party's national ticket.

The office of Vice-Presidency is, nowadays, certainly quite a bit more dignified than Wilson's portrayal of it as well. This is, first and foremost, due to the emergence of the United States of America as a global Superpower in the wake of World War II and all that this might portend: no more, for example, could a Vice-President Harry S Truman be kept so blissfully unaware of the Manhattan Project developing the first atomic bombs until the death of the President with whom he ran in the most recent Presidential Election. A secondary factor in this rise in the fortunes of the office are the addition of actual executive duties for the person occupying it (by Federal statute, the Vice-President is an ex officio member of the National Security Council, for example). But a big reason for the increase in dignity for the office over the last more than half a century is that a potential Vice-President is, nowadays, actually chosen by the person running for President and we often forget just how recent this particular phenomenon actually is!

Well into the 20th Century, a presidential nominee had very little- if any!- say in who his running mate would actually be. This was partly a matter of time constraint- a presidential candidate might well be nominated at the typical multi-ballot Convention mere hours before the balloting for a vice-presidential candidate would thereafter begin- and partly because the presidential contenders themselves would not, unless they might already be inside the Party hierarchy, even attend the Convention; but it was mostly a matter of raw political power and who actually could wield it. Warren Harding, after being nominated for President by the Republicans in 1920, was totally ignored by the Party leadership of that proverbial "smoke-filled room" who themselves choose Calvin Coolidge to join the ticket; Coolidge himself would be rebuffed when, four years later, his Party's Convention presented him with a Vice-President with whom he would hardly interact throughout the ensuing four-year term (put another way, Vice-President Charles Dawes would learn firsthand just how silent "Silent Cal" could, in fact, be). President Herbert Hoover and his Vice-President, Charles Curtis, pointedly refused to endorse each other's renomination: however, this proved no serious matter to the Republican Convention of 1932 which went ahead and renominated them both anyway!

No, instead the Vice Presidency was, for more than a century, very often the product of the quintessential "art of the deal". We may, for example, never fully know whether there, indeed, was a quid pro quo between the Texas and other delegates backing House Speaker John Nance Garner for the 1932 Democratic presidential nomination and those supporting Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt of New York for that same prize between the third and fourth ballots of the Presidential Nominating Roll Call: what we do know is that FDR was quite short of the then-necessary 2/3 of the Convention votes needed to nominate on ballot # 3, that he rather easily cleared that particular hurdle on ballot # 4 and that Garner, hitherto pretty much a regional candidate, thereafter was endorsed by 40 of the 48 State delegations as FDR's running mate!

Yes, there was some consideration given by the Party hierarchy to the feelings of an incumbent President seeking re-election about his running mate: indeed, President Lincoln's behind the scenes work in 1864 was certainly that which secured Andrew Johnson the Vice-Presidency in place of Hannibal Hamlin (one can but wonder how different history might have been during the years immediately following Lincoln's assassination under a President Hamlin... or anyone else, for that matter!). But, for the most part, renominated White House incumbents of the 19th into early 20th Centuries showed little interest in who might share the national ticket with them. Grover Cleveland ran for the Presidency three times in a row (twice successfully) with three different running mates, all chosen by the Party and come 1916, for instance, now-President Woodrow Wilson must have thought no differently about the second office than he had some three decades earlier for, despite obvious friction between himself and Vice-President Thomas Marshall, he made no effort at all to replace him (thus Marshall became the first person in over 80 years to be renominated, and re-elected, to the Vice-Presidency; of course, it was Marshall who- eerily echoing the youthful sentiments of his boss- would note that the Vice-President of his time was akin to "a man in a cataleptic state: he cannot speak, he cannot move, he suffers no pain- and yet he is perfectly conscious of everything that is going on about him").

1940 (well within the lifetimes of many still alive today) was to prove the beginning of the modern method of choosing Vice-Presidents. At that year's Republican Convention, Senator Charles McNary of Oregon (who was what we today might call a moderate Republican) was challenged for the Vice-Presidency by the far more conservative Congressman Dewey Short of Missouri: presidential nominee Wendell Willkie made it quite clear that he himself preferred McNary to Short and McNary thereafter easily won the second spot on the ticket, apparently the first time a non-incumbent presidential nominee had had major input as to who his running mate should be. At the later Democratic Convention that same year, incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt pretty much demanded that Henry Wallace (who was already becoming a controversial political figure) be placed on the ticket, despite strong objections from his Party's leadership. From that point on, it would be the presidential standard-bearer, incumbent or no, who would be allowed to decide who the Convention should choose as the Party's vice-presidential nominee (the influence of the Party hierarchy varying depending on the particular presidential candidate). This new practice was so well-established in such a relatively short time that, come 1956- when Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson allowed his Party's Convention to freely choose his running mate, this was already being described as an unusual departure from normal procedure!

Thus is the Vice-President of the United States no longer a mere "tack on" (to use young Woodrow Wilson's concept) to the United States Senate but truly an officer of the Executive branch of the Federal Government: indeed, he nowadays rarely presides over the Senate, his duties in this regard (despite his constitutionally-mandated position) largely restricted to gaveling to order Joint Sessions of Congress (most notably, that hearing the President's annual State of the Union message or the quadrennial formal counting and acceptance of the Electoral Vote for President and Vice-President), though he is still expected to gamely ride to the rescue of the policy agenda of the Administration in which he serves whenever a tie vote in the Senate seriously looms! Nevertheless, one thing Wilson wrote nearly 120 years ago has not all that much changed (and, in fact, is something upon which much of the Vice-President's comparatively recent acceptance as an executive officer is largely based): that his importance consists in the fact that he may cease to be Vice-President.

So the interest in the 2004 Presidential Election campaign, now that Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts has virtually sown up the Democratic presidential nomination, has turned- in both Major Parties- to the Vice-Presidency. On the one hand, we had the current holder of the Nation's second-highest office, Dick Cheney, once more vehemently insisting that- barring serious health issues (Cheney has had a long history of heart problems, including heart attacks)- he would remain on the Republican national ticket this coming Fall; on the other, speculation on the Democratic side has now turned to just exactly who Senator Kerry might- later, if not sooner- choose as his running mate.

Mr. Kerry faces some competing considerations here: the Bay State Senator must ever be cognizant of Wilson's admonition and, therefore, choose someone who can be- if necessary- an effective President, should Mr. Kerry be elected this coming November and his choice subsequently, and rather suddenly, "cease to be Vice-President"- this can be, of course, no easy task: for how many people have to so publicly stare well into the mirror of one's own mortality than that person who will be his Party's standard bearer? At the same time, however, the older notions of balancing the national ticket that have so long been a part of the history of the second office cannot here be so easily ignored. The Democrats will surely have to pick off at least a few Republican-leaning States (States that went for President Bush last time round) while holding onto the vast majority of those States that former Vice-President Al Gore had won in 2000 in order to thereafter pass muster within the 2004 Electoral College!

Thus we hear, first and foremost, the name of Senator John Edwards of North Carolina- Mr. Kerry's last serious competitor for the big prize their Party has to offer- bandied about. 'Tis true enough that Senator Edwards is from the South- a section of the country that shut Gore out 168-0 in the 2000 Electoral Vote- but Edwards did not do as well among his fellow Southerners as he himself long argued he would (a large reason Senator Kerry was able to virtually wrap up the presidential nomination so soon) and there is that nagging little fact that Mr. Edwards was, indeed, Kerry's last major challenger (can presidential nominee Kerry so put behind him whatever negatives presidential contender Edwards might have said about him in the course of the early Primary/Caucus campaign?). There is, however and more to the point, a further nagging fact here as well: Mr. Edwards, like Mr. Kerry, is a Senator and, as I myself pointed out in a Commentary on this very website more than four years ago, while we Americans seem to like United States Senators as presidential candidates, we tend to more elect Governors as our Presidents! Therefore it would seem that Senator Kerry (whose only previous experience in executive elective office was a mere two years as Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, an officer who didn't even preside over the Senate of ye olde Commonwealth!-- an office for whom Woodrow Wilson's description of the Vice-Presidency of 1885 might actually prove a bit more apt) would be much better served by choosing a Governor, present or former- or, at the very least, a Senator with previous Gubernatorial experience- for the second spot on the 2004 Democratic national ticket.

But who does that then leave (especially when one is also trying to pick someone who might help take votes away from the incumbent President in areas of the country where one would expect the incumbent's Party to be strong)? For if we take a look at my (admittedly somewhat tongue-in-cheek) 2004 Democratic Presidential/Vice-Presidential Ticket Pool, one seems to find somewhat slim pickin's indeed:

A couple Governors in that list's Group I B (which would be those with the most Gubernatorial experience as of the most recent Midterm Elections) either lost a bid for re-election (Musgrove of Mississippi- otherwise a potential Southerner on the ticket) or have been recalled (Davis of California); one (O'Bannon of Indiana) has since passed on (but, to be fair, his age [74 had he still been alive] would have probably precluded any serious consideration anyway) and the two remaining Governors in that section (Vilsack of Iowa and Locke of Washington) don't really seem to help Kerry all that much, at least if one is at least somewhat concerned about such base purely political calculations. Of the Senators in Group I C with Gubernatorial experience, only Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana particularly stands out (Senator Graham of Florida, while recently mentioned as a potential running mate for Kerry [mostly sentimentally, given the controversies- from the Democrats' perspective- over his State's Electoral Vote in the last Presidential Election] did less in the South with his abortive presidential campaign than even Edwards did [and- while I hate to say it- his turning 68 years old a week after this coming Fall Election puts Graham well into the upper limits of the optimum age for a Kerry running mate]).

Of the ex-Governors in Group I D, former Governor Dean of Vermont is out of the running for the second spot (for rather obvious reasons; Kerry's former rival for the nomination is far more slated, one would think, for a Cabinet post in a possible Kerry Administration than anything else) and the rest of those on the list cannot be taken very seriously (Kentucky's former Governor Patton is tainted by a recent sex scandal and none of the rest really bring anything very useful to the "bargaining table"). Thus we move on to Group II...

To this group we can add recently elected Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana and Governor O'Bannon's successor, Joe Kernan, but only out of politeness- for each has served far too little time in their new offices to be seriously considered for the second spot (though, yes, as a Southern woman, a Governor Blanco on the ticket is rather intriguing [could- for similar reasons- Senator Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Arkansas, though she lacks Gubernatorial experience, be on Kerry's short list?]). Of the current Governors on this list, only Napolitano of Arizona (also female, Governor of a GOP-leaning State, a former top prosecutor at both the Federal [U.S. Attorney for Arizona] and State [Arizona Attorney General] level), Holden of Missouri (a swing state that might help Kerry take a bite out of "Bush country" but Holden has had a rather rocky Governorship and would Kerry dare offer the Vice-Presidency to any Missouran other than former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt [of which more in a moment] in any event?) and Richardson of New Mexico (Hispanic, former UN Ambassador and Clinton Cabinet officer-- but being formerly UN-connected and so Clinton-connected will likely be a liability in trying to cut into GOP strongholds) jump out at first glance. Of the Group II Senators with Gubernatorial experience, meanwhile, only Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska is from a strongly Republican-voting State.

Before I close, one interesting comment about the aforementioned Dick Gephardt- like Senator Edwards and former Governor Dean, a former challenger to John Kerry's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Note well that which I wrote- a year and a third ago- atop this very 2004 Democratic Presidential/Vice-Presidential Ticket Pool listing:

"With all due respect to the rumored political intentions (at least as of this writing) of the outgoing Democratic U.S. House Leader, Congressman Dick Gephardt (D-Missouri), it is quite difficult to be nominated for- let alone be elected- President of the United States directly from (or having last served in elective office in) the lower house of the Congress of the United States... Perhaps, in the end, Dick Gephardt should really be aiming for VICE-President (after all, that current V.P. named Dick never served in an elective office above that of 'Member of Congress' either!)"

Hmmmmmmmmmm.... ;-)

 


Commentary Home