Friday, October 8, 2010
DUMPING THE VEEP: AN AMERICAN TRADITION
By JOSHUA SPIVAK
With poll numbers down and Democrats staring at difficult November election results, Bob Woodward and others have speculated that President Barack Obama could jump-start his 2012 re-election race by dumping gaffe-prone Vice President Joe Biden from his ticket, replacing him with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. There seems to be no real basis to these rumors, but if Obama does decide to replace Biden he can take comfort in the fact that he will be following a long American political tradition. Dumping the vice president goes back almost to the beginning of the republic.
It is a basic point that every president seeking re-election is looking to improve his standing in the public’s eye. Jettisoning an unpopular or undistinguished second-in-command in favor of a more voter-friendly running mate is one way to attempt this political repair job. It was a topic frequently brought up in 2004 when George Bush faced calls to replace Dick Cheney.
It is questionable whether switching vice presidents would make a difference in the election result – it is even a debatable question as to whether the initial choice of a vice president really makes any difference whatsoever at the polls. But that hasn’t stopped many presidents from trying this route.
It started with the third president, Thomas Jefferson , who tossed out his disloyal VP, Aaron Burr, in his 1804 re-election campaign and replaced him with New York’s governor, George Clinton. Many of our most illustrious presidents have followed, including Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt on two separate occasions. The tradition, coupled with the occasional death of either the president or vice president, ensured that for nearly 100 years no vice president served two consecutive terms with the same president.
Vice presidents were removed for a host of different excuses, from political disagreement and personal pique – Andrew Jackson’s replacement of John Calhoun comes to mind, as does FDR’s dumping of his first VP, John Garner – to scandal, as in the case of Ulysses Grant’s first vice president, Schuyler Colfax. However, the major reason for dumping a VP is the most obvious: perceived political gain. Sometimes the gain was tossing overboard an unpopular or controversial running mate, like FDR’s second veep, Henry Wallace. Other times it was to expand their political base, as when Lincoln threw his the colorless Hannibal Hamlin overboard, bringing aboard southerner Andrew Johnson.
In recent years, dumping the VP has gone out of fashion. Part of this has to do with the end of the backroom dealings at the party conventions. Additionally, geographic and ideological balancing of the ticket has become less of a priority. There is also the understanding that, with rare exceptions, the vice presidential choice doesn’t make much difference in the election results. But perhaps most importantly, the president does not want to be perceived as disloyal. And as much as anything short of divorcing a spouse, dumping the vice president would have that negative association.
Even though it has not been a popular move, anytime there’s a less-than-popular vice president, commentators suggest dumping the guy. Serving as Eisenhower’s VP, Richard Nixonsuccessfully navigated the threats to his political future, as influential Republicans lobbied for his replacement in 1956. In a similar vein to the rumors surrounding Biden, one of the proposals was to give Nixon a cabinet post. Lyndon Johnson was reputed to be facing the chopping block before Kennedy was assassinated. Nixon himself seriously considered getting rid of Spiro Agnew. And, of course, George H.W. Bush repeatedly ignored calls to replace his much-maligned running mate, Dan Quayle.
In fact, the only time it has occurred since 1944 was in 1976 when Gerald Ford , facing a difficult primary battle against the conservative Ronald Reagan , forced out the politically liberal Nelson Rockefeller and, in an appeal to a more conservative base, replaced him with Sen. Bob Dole . Notably, neither Ford nor Rockefeller were elected to national office, perhaps limiting any disloyalty charge. Ford managed to stave off the Reagan challenge, but narrowly lost the general election to Jimmy Carter. It is doubtful that keeping Rockefeller would have helped him triumph.
Biden probably has nothing to fear. But Obama could at least note that if he does want to make a switch, he would be joining good company. Replacing a vice president is an American tradition.
Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York.
Should Barak dump Joe for Hillary?November 2, 2010