Saturday, October 15, 2011

'Democrat Wars'

Lately, a proposal that is usually made as a way to offer a glimmer of hope to an embattled president seeking re–election — dropping the vice president from the ticket — has resurfaced.

In the case of Barack Obama, the idea has been bandied about for more than a year now. The latest to bring it up is Laura Washington of the Chicago Sun–Times, who writes that "[t]he idea still has juice" and that Joe Biden's logical replacement would be Hillary Clinton, providing instant appeal to certain groups with whom Obama had problems in 2008.

Washington acknowledges, though, that, while the president "has been having a very bad year," her most reliable source in these matters, a political science professor with expertise in the American presidency, says changing running mates would be "admitting failure." It would smack of desperation, the professor says, and "I just don't think they're at a point of desperation."

I don't know if this White House has reached such a point of desperation yet — and I have my doubts about the mindset that suggests that dropping a vice president from the ticket is going to make up for any perceived shortcomings in the president — but I find the timing of all this to be ironic.

It is just about taken for granted these days that a presidential general election campaign is going to include televised debates.

The series of Kennedy–Nixon debates of 1960 has achieved a somewhat mythical status in American history. They were the first — and, for several years, the only — such debates. They blazed a trail that almost disappeared in the accumulated undergrowth of time and inattention.

The major–party nominees did not debate each other in the next three presidential election years, but, in 1976, they agreed to a series of debates.

And, in every succeeding presidential election year, at least one debate has been held.

As I say, presidential debates were not new in 1976, but they were exceedingly rare. A debate between the vice presidential nominees, however, was new, and the first one was held 35 years ago tonight in Houston.

Now, historically, the job description for the vice president is kind of sparse. Most folks think of the vice president as sort of a president–in–waiting, the first in line if the incumbent president is unable to serve.

But that particular role was not spelled out in the Constitution until the passage of the 25th Amendment — and every vice president who became president following the death of the incumbent between 1841 and 1963 (that is eight in all) did so based on an assumption that was made when William Henry Harrison died in 1841, not on any sort of constitutional provision.

Traditionally, the vice president serves as the president of the Senate, which means very little. It is the vice president's job to maintain order — and he may vote, but only in the event of a tie. The vice president has also served as the United States' representative at the weddings and funerals of foreign dignitaries.

For the most part, though, vice presidents have been, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt's first vice president, John Garner, the executive branch's "spare tire."

(Ironically, the 1976 Republican presidential nominee, Gerald Ford, was the first — and, so far, only — vice president who became president following the adoption of the 25th Amendment.)

That made it difficult to ask questions that were relevant to the constitutional definition of the job. Maybe that is why vice presidential nominees never debated before Oct. 15, 1976. I mean, no one would tune in to watch vice presidential nominees arguing about which one was more experienced at sitting through long meetings or handling jet lag.

So the emphasis was on the role of president–in–waiting, practically assuming that one, if not both, would become president eventually (and, in fact, both were nominated for the presidency in future elections, but neither was elected), and the nominees debated topics that were more appropriate for presidential nominees. They did not discuss the kinds of situations they were most likely to face as vice president.

That alone turned the debate into an exercise in the hypothetical — and then Republican nominee Bob Dole, who hoped to bail out President Ford following his unfortunate gaffe in his debate with Jimmy Carter a week before, compared the number of American casualties in "Democrat wars" in the 20th century to the population of Detroit.

Democrat Walter Mondale protested that the wars had bipartisan support, and post–debate surveys indicated that a majority of viewers felt Dole's comments were unduly harsh.

"Does he really mean that there was a partisan difference over our involvement in the fight against Nazi Germany?" Mondale asked incredulously, echoing the response of many viewers.

In his book about the 1976 campaign, "Marathon," Jules Witcover wrote:

"[A]s I sat at my typewriter at the Washington Post, watching the debate on television and writing the article about it against a late deadline, I thought of Richard Nixon," Witcover wrote. "It was reminiscent of Nixon's seesaw performance at his famous 'last press conference' of 1962 ... There was a nervous, erratic quality about Dole, a carelessness. He spun off snide remarks almost as if he were unaware of the huge television audience or, perhaps more accurately, as if he were intentionally disdainful of it."

I always felt Witcover was on target in his assessment of Dole, and the characterization of his comments during the debate as "snide" describes them perfectly.

As he got older, Dole's personality seemed to mellow, but, in 1976, his brashness simply rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

I never felt that he was much of a plus for the Republican ticket to begin with — and he certainly wasn't on this night 35 years ago.

In hindsight, Ford might have been better served by retaining the vice president he appointed when he succeeded Nixon — Nelson Rockefeller. But conservative Republicans, who were in the process of seizing control of the party, would not have stood for that — even if it could have been satisfactorily demonstrated to them that Rockefeller's more amiable personality went over better with mainstream voters.

I often think too much emphasis is placed on the vice presidential nomination — as if observers expect the running mate to become president automatically, but we've had seven vice presidents since Ford became president and only one has gone on to become president — and he did so mostly because he had the good fortune to run in the wake of a popular president who was prohibited by law from seeking a third term.

There is also too much emphasis on — and too little historical evidence to demonstrate — the running mate's potential to attract voters who have not been enthusiastic about the presidential nominee. In 1976, Dole was expected to help win over conservatives who opposed Ford in the primaries, thus uniting the party for victory in November.

But that didn't happen.

And I don't think replacing Biden with anyone, Hillary or anyone else, is the answer for what ails Obama.

Like the criticism that historians often have of generals, that they are guilty of fighting the last war, not the latest one. The groups that preferred Hillary over Obama in 2008 wanted her to be president, not vice president, and I've seen no evidence that those groups would be more favorably inclined to support Obama now than they were then.

When I was growing up, the conventional wisdom about running mates was that, at best, they should do no harm to the ticket. They were even expected to help the ticket, to a certain extent, but not to win the election for the ticket.

That was — and, as far as I can tell, still is — the presidential nominee's responsibility.

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