Hail to the Veep

Whatever you think of Joe Biden’s candidacy, I think we can all agree it doesn’t exist without his vice presidency. In the recent series of CBS/YouGov early state polls, respondents were asked why they supported the candidate they chose. Sanders, Warren, and Harris voters agreed policy positions were a reason more than 80% of the time. For Biden it was 60%

Campaign style was a reason about 45% of the time for the others, 25% for Biden. Though Biden spent 36 years in the Senate, his tenure there was listed as a reason less frequently than Warren and Sanders, and as frequently as Harris, who hasn’t served for 36 months yet.

Where did Biden score higher? Familiarity, where he received the highest score in each state.

It’s likely this comfort is from Biden’s time as Veep. When asked if this was a reason they were supporting him, between 84 (Nevada) and 92 (New Hampshire) percent of his supporters said yes.

He’s the polling front-runner after five months of missteps, misspeaks, and negative media coverage. This from someone who exited the 1988 presidential campaign before voting started, and only improved enough by 2008 to last until Iowa.

You’d have to think if any candidate ever benefitted from being Veep, it’s Biden.

Which got me wondering. How historic is the assist he’s getting? Has anyone ever been more helped by serving as #2? Let’s try to set some parameters.

First, we’ll eliminate anyone who succeeded to the presidency by death or resignation before they needed to run for nomination. Second, let’s forget about anyone prior to World War Two. After Martin Van Buren became the Democratic nominee in 1836, it was more than a century before another Veep made a credible run.

Something changed with the Truman Administration*. Since his second-in-command Alben Barkley gave it a try in 1952, only two VPs never tried to run. The first, Spiro T. Agnew, resigned his office due to tax evasion charges. The second was Dick Cheney.

It takes a lot to get one of these guys not to try. Even Dan Quayle gave it a shot. In 2000. Nobody noticed, but he still made the attempt. If Biden is one of the most helped, Quayle might be the most harmed. This calls for a scoring system.

I decided to give each Veep of the modern era 1 to 5 points in each of the following categories:

How well they partnered with POTUS:

Biden (4 points) has pitched himself as Barack Obama’s wingman. He regularly talks about being involved in important decisions and deputized to deal with critical congressional items or foreign negotiations.

How popular the administration they served in was at the time of their running for president:

The country is a bit divided on the Obama Administration, but his popularity numbers are well to the good side of 50/50. Not only does this help Biden (4 points) among Democrats, but the general public likes Obama better than his successor.

How much their party wanted to continue the path of that administration:

George H.W. Bush (5 points) very explicitly ran on four more years of Ronald Reagan. Sure, he was going to be “kinder and gentler.” But he ran closer to his president than anyone else has.

While Obama is personally very well liked by Democrats, many of them now believe his administration was too accommodating to Mitch McConnell and other Republicans. Biden (3 points) isn’t in the position of Walter Mondale (2 points) in 1984, hoping the world would forget the Carter Years, but this is a mixed bag for him.

Boost in stature as a presidential contender from pre-VP standing:

Given that Biden (5 points) is notable for his failures as a presidential candidate, this is the largest boost any of the candidates received. Mondale (4 points) washed out on his own in 1976, but that was only one failure to gain traction.

Al Gore (3 points) had a respectable showing as a presidential candidate in 1988, while Bush (3 points) finished second to Reagan in 1980, upsetting him in Iowa. Richard Nixon (3 points) was a rising star when Dwight Eisenhower tabbed him in 1952. Regardless of being chosen, Nixon had a top-tier future.

Meanwhile, a clearly not-yet-ripe Quayle (1 point) was ruined as a serious politician before the 1988 election was even over. Nothing in his actual VP term helped whatsoever. A misspelling of potato(e) later, and even waiting an extra cycle to run couldn’t help.

The maximum overall score is 20, the minimum is 4. Let’s see how they finished:

Joe Biden, 2020 (16 points):

If Obama were a little more popular. If party activists and many younger voters hadn’t moved way to his left. If the Obama-Biden bromance extended to an official or implicit 2020 endorsement, we’d see a Perfect 20 here.

It’s not, but absent the Veep stint, Biden would be challenging Strom Thurmond’s record for longevity as a senator instead of leading the Democratic nomination polls, while running several points ahead of Trump.

George H.W. Bush, 1988 (16 points):

Yes, Bush got somewhere on his own in 1980. In general, he wasn’t great at running for things. Unique among presidents, he lost more elections than he won.

He’s also not a Perfect 20 because he was a beta to Reagan’s alpha. In winning the 1988 nomination, he had to overcome the “wimp factor.” Fair or not, for someone who was the youngest Navy pilot in WW2, and survived being shot down, his subservient nature as Veep contributed.

Richard Nixon, 1968 (16 points):

Nixon shows up twice on the list. In 1960, there were plenty of advantages, but also some drawbacks. By 1968 the deck was stacked more in his favor.

With cities in flames and protestors in the streets, many voters were apt to look back fondly at the Eisenhower years. Four years before, Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater and lost by an epic margin. The ex-Veep was a far safer choice, enough to outweigh the stench of a loss to Kennedy, followed by defeat to Pat Brown in the 1962 California Governor contest.

A major component of Nixon’s comeback was his work campaigning for GOP congressional candidates in the 1966 midterm. He worked harder than any other national politician, and Republicans picked up 47 seats.

Without the patina of the vice presidency, this tour loses it’s effectiveness. Instead of taking one for the team as a party elder, he’d be just another striving senator (assuming he’d held his seat.)

Al Gore, 2000 (15 points):

Gore ran decently in 1988. Maybe by 2000, he would have found himself with a real chance to win the nomination. But also, he was Al Gore. Not the most charismatic politician ever born. His eight years as a reasonably empowered VP made him a huge favorite.

Only Bill Bradley tried to challenge him. Gore won all 50 states. Though the economy was slowing a bit, Gore got to run on several years of prosperity and a seemingly secure pre-9/11 world.

He loses points for being unable to wrap Clinton in a bear hug the way Biden does with Obama. The whiff of scandal was still in the way. Monica Lewinsky and impeachment a recent thing. Gore decided to go his own way more than Bush had in 1988. Combined with a strong opponent, and losing his home state, that was enough to have a few voters in Florida decide an election.

Richard Nixon, 1960 (13 points):

Reagan and Bush had an Alpha/Beta thing going. For Eisenhower and Nixon it was a bit more like father and son. And dad didn’t necessarily trust his boy with the keys. Bush got to run against Michael Dukakis. Nixon drew JFK.

Nixon was an extremely effective #2. When necessary, he served as a partisan attack dog, allowing Ike to stay above the fray. When Eisenhower was felled by a major heart attack and unable to perform his duties at full strength for months, Nixon stepped up.

Despite this, Eisenhower attempted to get Nixon to take a cabinet job instead of staying on the ticket for 1956. Later, when asked by reporters in 1960 to name something important Nixon had done for the administration, Ike quipped “if you give me a week, I might think of something.” The remark may have been made in jest, but harmed Nixon greatly.

The combination of Ike’s seeming indifference to his successor, and Kennedy’s ability to run against the stasis of the late Eisenhower years cost Nixon a few points in our system, as well as the election.

Walter Mondale, 1984 (11 points):

Given this was only four years after Jimmy Carter was summarily ejected from office for high inflation, high interest rates, a tanking economy, and hostages still trapped in Iran, it’s easy to see why Mondale isn’t at the top of the list.

But his Veepdom still helped a little more than it hurt. In particular, it got him the nomination. Mondale was a more influential VP than most all of his predecessors. The custom of regular weekly meetings began with Carter-Mondale. So did the idea of deputizing the VP to do more than attend funerals for second-tier foreign leaders.

Alben Barkley, 1952 (9 points):

When Barkley made a legit effort to win the nomination, he began the trend of Vice Presidents who weren’t thought of as contenders prior to getting the job, giving it a try.

Biden’s age is a constant thing now. It makes sense. He’s 76. Barkley was 74, at a time where U.S. male life expectancy was 65.8. He was from Kentucky. No candidates from south of the Mason-Dixon Line were getting nominated in those days.

There was nothing about Barkley beyond his office that made him a contender. He only gets 9 points because the Truman Administration was very unpopular by 1952, and while he was more informed than many of his predecessors, it was decades before the job had it’s current day-to-day importance.

Hubert Humphrey, 1968 (7 points) and

Hubert Humphrey, 1972 (7 points):

He ran twice as a current or former VP. This wasn’t a Biden or Mondale who had no ability to become a top-tier candidate on his own. In 1960, Humphrey made JFK work to defeat him one-on-one in Wisconsin and West Virginia.

Had JFK skipped going to Dallas, or put the protective bubble top on his limo that day, and history had run a different course, Humphrey was set to contend again in 1968.

Instead, Lyndon Johnson tabbed him as his 1964 running mate. And promptly buried him. Instead of scheduled weekly meetings like Mondale and Bush the Elder, Humphrey got scraps. Instead of playing wingman like Biden, the Hump was LBJ’s whipping boy.

As a price of getting Johnson’s crucial support to win the 1968 nomination, Humphrey needed to defend the very Vietnam policy that forced LBJ to decline running for re-election. Once admired on the left for his stance on civil rights, Humphrey was scorned because of his association with the administration and reluctance to break with LBJ.

A last minute bombing halt in Vietnam made the election close, but Humphrey still lost to Nixon. Being Veep helped him get nominated, but sure didn’t help him win.

He gave it another try in 1972, falling short to George McGovern. All of the vice presidential baggage was still there. More qualified in his own right than most, more harmed by the president he served than all, Humphrey lost way more than he gained in taking the job.

Dan Quayle, 2000 (7 points):

Quayle never recovered from being filleted by Lloyd Bentsen in the 1988 VP debate. By the time he misspelled potato(e), his status as a joke was secure. There were no accomplishments of the Bush 41 years that are attributable to Quayle. He was notably absent from view during the first Iraq War. He was equally invisible during the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Soviet Union.

He picks up points for the administration not being a joke, and I need to keep to the formula, but in reality, Quayle should score at the minimum. Unlike Humphrey, who won one nomination and legitimately challenged for another, Quayle never earned a single delegate.

Comparing Biden to Quayle magnifies the capriciousness of filling this role. Biden misspeaks or gaffes more times in a single debate than Quayle did in his whole career.

But where Biden was a legitimate wingman to Obama, did have an actual role in the administration, and was brought aboard to provide a reassuring older presence, Quayle was the reverse. He was on the ticket to provide youth. Bush the Elder had a whole roster of trusted advisors he’d known for years. His VP wound up being a tarnished hood ornament.

Vice Presidents sign their political futures over to their boss. While Biden was rehabilitating, Quayle was in suspended animation. It’s hard to imagine a world where Quayle becomes a very strong candidate, so this speaks more to Biden’s fortune.

Our gut feeling isn’t wrong. Not only is most of Biden’s strength due to his time with Obama, he’s helped at least as much as any of his predecessors ever were. Should he win the presidency next fall, being Veep will seem more attractive than ever before. Especially with Biden himself likely too old to run for re-election.

*The something that changed was the Atomic Bomb. Truman was way out of the loop during his three months as FDR’s understudy. He learned of the Manhattan Project upon FDR’s death. Having gone through that, Truman didn’t want his number two to have the same problem.

While Barkley wasn’t an integral part of the administration, he was more involved than his predecessors. With a few blips, the job has become increasingly tied to the presidency over the past several decades.

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