Just Say No, Joe

Former Vice President Joe Biden

Joe Biden appears poised to announce a run for the presidency. He should reconsider his pending decision. For one thing, the former vice president should realize that history is not on his side. Most of the men — all men, so far — who served as vice president rose no higher.  Only four vice presidents were elected to the nation’s highest office in the next election.

Two of them — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the first two vice presidents — were elected to the vice presidency and the presidency before the enactment of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution. Originally, the president was the candidate who came in first in the Electoral College; the vice president was the runner up. (Each elector cast two ballots for president.) That arrangement theoretically worked only if there were no political parties, which the framers of the Constitution hoped would be the case. But, during George Washington’s two terms, political parties — originally called factions — emerged, and, in 1796, the president — John Adams — was from one party, and his vice president — Thomas Jefferson — from another. That was, to say the least, messy.

Thomas Jefferson, left, and Aaron Burr

Then came the even messier election of 1800 that resulted in a tie in the Electoral College between two Republicans — Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who was slated to be vice president under a plan whereby one elector who voted for Jefferson would not vote for Burr. Eventually, Alexander Hamilton persuaded some Federalists in the House of Representatives to vote for Jefferson over the crafty and untrustworthy Burr (Hamilton believed Jefferson a dangerous radical, but an honest man. For Hamilton, it was a case of the lesser of two evils). The 1796 and 1800 elections led to the passage of the 12th Amendment in 1804, which separated elections for the two offices. Since enactment of the 12th Amendment, electors pick a president and a vice president, guaranteeing that a president and his running mate will be paired. The 12th Amendment also underpins, in part, the two-party system.

Martin Van Buren

After the passage of the 12th Amendment, only Martin Van Buren and George H.W. Bush were elected president immediately after their terms as vice president. Both failed to win reelection. Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, lost to John Kennedy in 1960, but won the presidency eight years later, then to become the only president ever to resign from office. His vice president, Gerald Ford, who was appointed to the position upon the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, served the remainder of Nixon’s term, but lost the next election. All the other vice presidents who became president did so upon the death of the elected president. John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur never won election as president, while Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson were elected president after finishing their predecessor’s term.

Andrew Johnson

Throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, vice presidents were chosen to balance the ticket. Andrew Johnson became Abraham Lincoln’s vice presidential running mate in 1864 because Lincoln ran a unity campaign, even changing the party name temporarily from Republican to Union, and Johnson was a War Democrat from the South who remained in the Senate when Tennessee seceded in 1861. Vice presidents were expected to do no harm during elections and not much of anything while in office. They seldom sought the brass ring and were not thought of as presidential material. In recent years, presidents have given their number twos more responsibilities, and, as a consequence, vice presidents today have higher profiles than in the past. Richard Nixon had experience in the House and Senate before becoming vice president, and Eisenhower, who had ambivalent feelings about Nixon, granted his vice president an active role. 

Hubert Humphrey

Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, ran for president after Johnson, who, concluding the Vietnam War doomed his reelection chances, decided not to run again. Humphrey frequently was mentioned as presidential material and was the darling of Northern liberals. Until, that is, his support for “Johnson’s war” made him anathema to the Democratic left. He lost a close election to Nixon. Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s vice president, ran and lost in 1984, the election after Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan. And, then, there is Al Gore, who actually won the presidency but never served in the office. That, as they say, is another story.

With that bit of history, let us turn to Biden, who probably will not be influenced by the historical record. He is a good and decent man with a long and distinguished record. Biden heads or is near the top of the Democratic field in polls, a tribute to name recognition stemming from his many years in public service. But, the Democratic Party has moved to the left in recent years, and, while Biden is a liberal, he has not kept pace with the rest of the party. Because he has dilly-dallied in announcing his candidacy, Biden has lost the opportunity to recruit top-level aides to his campaign, including former advisers to President Barack Obama, women, and people of color. Recently, Biden has had to fend off accusations from multiple women who complained of his close physical contact and his penchant for touching people. No one has accused Biden of sexual harassment or any kind of abuse, but it opens the former vice president to accusations from opponents, or worse, veiled allusions. 

Anita Hill

As a senator, Biden pushed legislation that lengthened criminal sentences, particularly for drug offenses committed by people of color. That legislation is responsible for the mass incarceration of African Americans. Biden has expressed regret that he could not provide Anita Hill — Clarence Thomas’s accuser during his confirmation hearing for a seat on the Supreme Court — “the kind of hearing she deserved.” It is a curious formulation given that Biden was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time of the Thomas hearing. Presumably, he could have run a hearing where Hill would not have been made into a villain.

The point is not that Biden is a bad man. It is only that he has been in politics a long time and has a long record, which gives his opponents lots of targets to hit. And, he is old — perhaps too old — in a party skewing toward youth (Bernie Sanders, this applies to you, too). So, here is a piece of unsolicited advice, Joe Biden: Rest on your laurels. Stay home, be the éminence grise of the Democratic Party while not sullying your good name on a run for the presidency.

Just say no, Joe. Who knows? Perhaps, the eventual Democratic president will name you secretary of state. That is a position for which you are well qualified.

Posted April 9, 2019

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