The Vice-President Won-Lost Game

Most vice-presidents want to be president someday. As a matter of fact, a significant number of vice-presidents -- probably the majority -- are themselves failed presidential aspirants, having been denied their party’s nomination during the presidential primary process. After falling short in the big contest for the top spot, being selected by the eventual nominee to be the Number Two person smacks of a consolation prize, a charitable, almost pitiable gesture.

When the president under whom they served has finished their tenure, many times the vice-president does indeed get their shot at the nation’s highest political position. As a presidential contender, the former VP certainly enjoys a familiarity and name recognition advantage over their party’s other contenders that gives them a big leg up in early polls. Coupled with the unspoken but historically-credible notion that there is a certain degree of well-they-deserve-their-shot-now feeling within the party regarding a former VP, almost all vice-presidents do, in fact, get their turn at bat in the Big Game.

But if political history post-World War II is any indication, vice presidents have a very formidable task when faced with ascending to the presidency on their own.

Richard Nixon After two terms as Vice-President under President Eisenhower (1952-1960) Richard Nixon was the natural choice to be the Republican nominee for President in 1960, running against Democrat John F. Kennedy.  The 1960 campaign can be thought of as the first “television” presidential campaign, where a candidate’s looks and personal aura counted as much -- if not more -- than their actual qualifications and policy stances. In history’s first televised presidential debate, Kennedy had the foresight to wear make-up and make the effort to look good under the harsh TV studio lights. Nixon, in contrast, looked pale and washed out. The combination of Kennedy’s naturally handsome looks and his far more at-ease personality made Nixon come off as nervous and shifty to the viewing public. Kennedy was judged to be the clear winner of the TV debate. Interestingly, Nixon came across far better to those people who listened to the debate on radio, where personal appearance was not a factor.

In a close contest, Kennedy won the presidency and former VP Nixon fell short. A VP loss.

Lyndon B. Johnson was the leading competitor to JFK in 1960 for the nomination and after Kennedy won, he selected LBJ to be his running mate. Johnson, as VP, assumed the Presidency following Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in November 1963. Johnson, running on his own in 1964, handily defeated Barry Goldwater in one of the more one-sided elections in modern history. We’ll count Johnson as a VP win, earning the presidency.

Nixon finally won the presidency in 1968, defeating Democrat Hubert Humphrey in a somewhat close election following the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention. Nixon won a second term when he defeated George McGovern in 1972 in a landslide (McGovern won only one state, Massachusetts). However, Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign shortly into Nixon’s second term in October 1973 for tax evasion and money laundering.

Gerald Ford was appointed to fill Agnew’s spot. Ford became the unlikely president less than a year later in August 1974 when Nixon resigned in the midst of the Watergate imbroglio. In 1976, having survived a primary challenge by Ronald Reagan, Ford faced Jimmy Carter in the general election and lost a close contest. We’ll say that was a VP loss.

In 1984, Walter Mondale (VP to the hapless Jimmy Carter) was anointed as the sacrificial lamb to fall on his sword and run against Ronald Reagan for Reagan’s second term. It was ugly. Granted, in the 1980s, the liberal/progressive movement was not as strong as it is today, but even so, Mondale couldn’t even carry Massachusetts or California. A most emphatic VP loss.

Following the Reagan presidential years of 1980-1988, Reagan’s VP George HW Bush won the Republican nomination and vied for the presidency on his own.  Bush easily beat Democrat Michael Dukakis, the former Governor of Massachusetts. Bush had a milquetoast, boring personality, bereft of exciting, inspirational qualities and he also did not have any high-profile issues or stances with which he was readily identified.

However, Dukakis was surely one of the weakest, most pathetic presidential nominees of modern times. His stunning inability to show fire and passion during a debate when moderator Bernard Shaw asked if he’d favor the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife, his release on furlough of convicted murderer Willie Horton (who then committed another violent crime while out) and the utterly ridiculous, laughable photo of him riding in an Abrams tank wearing a tanker's helmet stand out as but three examples of his feeble character and blatant unsuitability for the role of American leader. Milquetoast or not, 1988 was a VP win for Bush.

If ever a VP should have succeeded his President into office, it was Al Gore in 2000. Following the country’s strong economic performance under President Clinton, coupled with a reasonably calm eight-year foreign affairs stretch, the ball was teed up nicely for Gore to just waltz into the Oval Office. Although it forever sullied Clinton’s image and legacy, his Lewinski dalliance didn’t seem to confer any meaningful negative backlash onto Gore. The country was working, at peace and ready for President Gore.

Except for one thing: Gore was a pretentious, supercilious dork of the highest order. He set a standard for inauthentic pomposity that would stand for a veritable lifetime (almost four years, until John Kerry in 2004). The electorate just couldn’t bring themselves to deliver Gore the easy win he expected. Instead, George W. Bush beat him, recount, “nu-cue-lar,” “strategery” and all. It stands as the biggest VP loss in modern history.

Which brings us to Joe Biden. As of this writing, the Democratic nominee hasn’t been selected, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s posit it will be Biden. As President Obama’s VP for eight years, he was thinking about running in 2016, but that year was reserved for Hillary. Out of deference to the First Family of Democratic politics, he dared not challenge her or create any disharmony. With the rules of the game appropriately fixed in her favor, Hillary dispatched that pesky hand-waving old guy in the primaries and won the nomination, on her way to becoming the First Woman.

Oops.

Now in 2020, against President Trump, Biden assumes it’s his turn and he no doubt thinks he’ll win easily. But despite Biden’s 40-odd years at the public trough, he is known mostly for embarrassing speaking gaffes, cringeworthy gropes, plagiarism, and an astonishing record of being on the wrong side of almost every major foreign policy issue of the last several decades. A sharp debater could carve Biden up like a surgeon.

From Nixon through Gore, the post-WWII VP won-lost record is two wins, four losses. A last-place record. The betting here is that if Biden runs, Team VP falls even further into the cellar.

Most vice-presidents want to be president someday. As a matter of fact, a significant number of vice-presidents -- probably the majority -- are themselves failed presidential aspirants, having been denied their party’s nomination during the presidential primary process. After falling short in the big contest for the top spot, being selected by the eventual nominee to be the Number Two person smacks of a consolation prize, a charitable, almost pitiable gesture.

When the president under whom they served has finished their tenure, many times the vice-president does indeed get their shot at the nation’s highest political position. As a presidential contender, the former VP certainly enjoys a familiarity and name recognition advantage over their party’s other contenders that gives them a big leg up in early polls. Coupled with the unspoken but historically-credible notion that there is a certain degree of well-they-deserve-their-shot-now feeling within the party regarding a former VP, almost all vice-presidents do, in fact, get their turn at bat in the Big Game.

But if political history post-World War II is any indication, vice presidents have a very formidable task when faced with ascending to the presidency on their own.

Richard Nixon After two terms as Vice-President under President Eisenhower (1952-1960) Richard Nixon was the natural choice to be the Republican nominee for President in 1960, running against Democrat John F. Kennedy.  The 1960 campaign can be thought of as the first “television” presidential campaign, where a candidate’s looks and personal aura counted as much -- if not more -- than their actual qualifications and policy stances. In history’s first televised presidential debate, Kennedy had the foresight to wear make-up and make the effort to look good under the harsh TV studio lights. Nixon, in contrast, looked pale and washed out. The combination of Kennedy’s naturally handsome looks and his far more at-ease personality made Nixon come off as nervous and shifty to the viewing public. Kennedy was judged to be the clear winner of the TV debate. Interestingly, Nixon came across far better to those people who listened to the debate on radio, where personal appearance was not a factor.

In a close contest, Kennedy won the presidency and former VP Nixon fell short. A VP loss.

Lyndon B. Johnson was the leading competitor to JFK in 1960 for the nomination and after Kennedy won, he selected LBJ to be his running mate. Johnson, as VP, assumed the Presidency following Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in November 1963. Johnson, running on his own in 1964, handily defeated Barry Goldwater in one of the more one-sided elections in modern history. We’ll count Johnson as a VP win, earning the presidency.

Nixon finally won the presidency in 1968, defeating Democrat Hubert Humphrey in a somewhat close election following the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention. Nixon won a second term when he defeated George McGovern in 1972 in a landslide (McGovern won only one state, Massachusetts). However, Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign shortly into Nixon’s second term in October 1973 for tax evasion and money laundering.

Gerald Ford was appointed to fill Agnew’s spot. Ford became the unlikely president less than a year later in August 1974 when Nixon resigned in the midst of the Watergate imbroglio. In 1976, having survived a primary challenge by Ronald Reagan, Ford faced Jimmy Carter in the general election and lost a close contest. We’ll say that was a VP loss.

In 1984, Walter Mondale (VP to the hapless Jimmy Carter) was anointed as the sacrificial lamb to fall on his sword and run against Ronald Reagan for Reagan’s second term. It was ugly. Granted, in the 1980s, the liberal/progressive movement was not as strong as it is today, but even so, Mondale couldn’t even carry Massachusetts or California. A most emphatic VP loss.

Following the Reagan presidential years of 1980-1988, Reagan’s VP George HW Bush won the Republican nomination and vied for the presidency on his own.  Bush easily beat Democrat Michael Dukakis, the former Governor of Massachusetts. Bush had a milquetoast, boring personality, bereft of exciting, inspirational qualities and he also did not have any high-profile issues or stances with which he was readily identified.

However, Dukakis was surely one of the weakest, most pathetic presidential nominees of modern times. His stunning inability to show fire and passion during a debate when moderator Bernard Shaw asked if he’d favor the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife, his release on furlough of convicted murderer Willie Horton (who then committed another violent crime while out) and the utterly ridiculous, laughable photo of him riding in an Abrams tank wearing a tanker's helmet stand out as but three examples of his feeble character and blatant unsuitability for the role of American leader. Milquetoast or not, 1988 was a VP win for Bush.

If ever a VP should have succeeded his President into office, it was Al Gore in 2000. Following the country’s strong economic performance under President Clinton, coupled with a reasonably calm eight-year foreign affairs stretch, the ball was teed up nicely for Gore to just waltz into the Oval Office. Although it forever sullied Clinton’s image and legacy, his Lewinski dalliance didn’t seem to confer any meaningful negative backlash onto Gore. The country was working, at peace and ready for President Gore.

Except for one thing: Gore was a pretentious, supercilious dork of the highest order. He set a standard for inauthentic pomposity that would stand for a veritable lifetime (almost four years, until John Kerry in 2004). The electorate just couldn’t bring themselves to deliver Gore the easy win he expected. Instead, George W. Bush beat him, recount, “nu-cue-lar,” “strategery” and all. It stands as the biggest VP loss in modern history.

Which brings us to Joe Biden. As of this writing, the Democratic nominee hasn’t been selected, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s posit it will be Biden. As President Obama’s VP for eight years, he was thinking about running in 2016, but that year was reserved for Hillary. Out of deference to the First Family of Democratic politics, he dared not challenge her or create any disharmony. With the rules of the game appropriately fixed in her favor, Hillary dispatched that pesky hand-waving old guy in the primaries and won the nomination, on her way to becoming the First Woman.

Oops.

Now in 2020, against President Trump, Biden assumes it’s his turn and he no doubt thinks he’ll win easily. But despite Biden’s 40-odd years at the public trough, he is known mostly for embarrassing speaking gaffes, cringeworthy gropes, plagiarism, and an astonishing record of being on the wrong side of almost every major foreign policy issue of the last several decades. A sharp debater could carve Biden up like a surgeon.

From Nixon through Gore, the post-WWII VP won-lost record is two wins, four losses. A last-place record. The betting here is that if Biden runs, Team VP falls even further into the cellar.