John F. Kennedy believed that being passed over for vice president by the Democratic convention in 1956 saved his political career. That year, Adlai Stevenson, the presidential nominee, had left the selection of his running mate to the convention delegates—the last time a nominee did so. The choice came down to Kennedy and his Senate colleague Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, who had lined up too much early support even for the attractive young war hero to overcome. In the end, Kennedy had it both ways. He benefited from the television exposure and was spared the blame—which as a Catholic, he would have shared—for Stevenson’s walloping by President Eisenhower that November. As for Estes, except for crossword puzzlers, nobody much remembers him.
Running and losing for vice president has never been a promising route to the Oval Office. Yet Sarah Palin, even before this week’s book tour mediathon, has been touted by some as the heir apparent of the Republican Party, if not its de facto leader. Right-wing devotees cheer her on, liberals writhe in fear lest she come within 3,000 miles of the White House, and the news media lavish her with attention that’s out of proportion to her actual chances of a political future. In fact, only one defeated vice presidential candidate ever achieved the feat that Palin would like to duplicate, and to date she shows no signs of resembling Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
FDR, as a young assistant secretary of the Navy, ran in 1920 as running mate to Ohio Gov. James Cox, in large part on the strength of his family name. But his was a fluke choice, a harbinger of the oncoming age of celebrity. (Moreover, he would conquer polio and serve as governor of New York before running in 1932.) Prior to that, the vice presidency itself—to say nothing of the running mate slot for the losing side—was a backwater. Before the passage of the 12th Amendment in 1804, a different system had helped Vice Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson become president, but the fate of understudies since then has been bleak. Only Martin Van Buren went from the No. 2 slot to winning election as president, and until Theodore Roosevelt broke the mold, even vice presidents who inherited the top office and logged time as chief executive didn’t get their parties’ nomination.
If the vanquished vice presidential running mates who preceded FDR were largely anonymous, those who followed him were scarcely more august. A few achieved distinction, in particular, California Gov. Earl Warren, Thomas Dewey’s partner in 1948. But neither Charles Bryan (1924) nor Joe Robinson (1928) nor Charles Curtis (1932) nor Frank Knox (1936) nor Charles McNary (1940) nor John Bricker (1944) nor John Sparkman (1952) nor Kefauver (1956) nor Henry Cabot Lodge (1960) was a presidential contender during the next cycle. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 running mate, William Miller, cut one of the early American Express “Do you know me?” ads featuring pitchmen whose 15 minutes of fame had expired.
Starting with Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s vice president for eight years, the veep took on additional responsibilities, as the sheer number of tasks assumed by the White House proliferated. Television began turning politicians into celebrities, and the sitting vice president gained in stature. The 22nd Amendment limiting the president to two terms also helped make the veep the default choice for his party’s presidential nomination the next time around.
But while sitting vice presidents have often secured their parties’ nominations in modern times—Nixon (1960), Hubert Humphrey (1968), Walter Mondale (1984), George Bush Sr. (1988), Al Gore (2000)—of defeated vice presidential nominees, only Bob Dole did so (in 1996), and it took him 20 years. Joe Lieberman, Jack Kemp, Lloyd Bentsen, Geraldine Ferraro, Sargent Shriver—though not lightweights, these politicians weren’t presidential timber in most people’s eyes. Edmund Muskie in 1972 and John Edwards in 2008 did emerge from their failed vice presidential bids as plausible candidates, but even they couldn’t go the distance.
At any rate, Palin is self-evidently not of the caliber of a Muskie (who stepped into the role of secretary of state in 1979) or a Dole. According to an ABC News poll, only 38 percent of Americans consider her to be qualified to serve as president, and 60 percent consider her unqualified. (A CNN poll puts the qualified figure at 28 percent.) While many in the media made the mistake of underestimating her in the immediate aftermath of her selection as John McCain’s running mate—she proved to have good political instincts and talent as a political performer—they are now overestimating her.
Indeed, the losing vice presidential candidate Palin most resembles is none other than Dan Quayle. Handsome, young, popular with the right-wing base, self-styled champion of family values, scourge of the “liberal media” and embodiment of Heartland America, Quayle likewise confounded observers in 1988 when Bush Sr. tapped him as his No. 2. (Only after Americans’ prolonged exposure to George W. Bush did it become clear what Poppy Bush saw in Quayle.) Moreover, both Palin and Quayle, perhaps not coincidentally, enjoyed critical support from the journalist-operative Bill Kristol, whom Jacob Weisberg dubbed “Quayle’s Brain” when he served as the vice president’s chief of staff, and who helped push Palin onto the McCain team’s radar screen. Quayle, too, we should recall, hit the best-seller list with his 1994 memoir, Standing Firm. And like Quayle, Palin seems destined—if she even seeks the presidency in 2012—to bow out early on, perhaps after the 2011 Iowa straw poll.
Losing in a vice presidential run can hamper aspirants for the top office in several ways. In the first place, running mates are usually chosen in calculations that are at least partly expedient—shoring up the lead candidates’ weaknesses or otherwise enhancing their images. Those same calculations probably won’t be relevant four years later. Up-and-coming politicians thrust into the spotlight also get subjected to intense media scrutiny that can expose unseen flaws. At the same time, as Kennedy appreciated, they might get saddled unfairly with the blame for losing. Worst of all, their vice presidential bids use up all the excitement associated with their novelty—a vital source of political capital in our day.
All of which suggests to me that if we are really concerned with whom the Republicans will nominate in 2012, we are focusing on the wrong vice presidential nominee. Unlike Palin, Dick Cheney speaks with confidence and knowledge about national and international affairs, even as he also commands a loyal following among the Republican base. And while his appeal doesn’t extend much beyond that base, it has been rising since he left office. Cheney himself, of course, has forsworn any presidential aspirations. But his daughter Liz—who has emerged in the last year as a leading conservative talking head, defender of the Bush-Cheney record, and “red state rock star“—has done no such thing. It was, after all, the scion of another former vice president who put an end to Quayle’s career.
Sarah Palin, watch your back.