Ryan and the Curse of the Losing Veep Nominees

Back right after the 2012 elections, I did a little historical digging about the fate of failed vice presidential nominees over the years, and discovered the only one in the modern era who actually ascended to the presidency was Paul Ryan’s ghostly nemesis Franklin D. Roosevelt.

So I was interested to read Steve Kornacki’s column today about Ryan’s current trajectory in the GOP given the parallel experience of vice presidential losers since 1972.

Steve sets the goal of determining whether being second in command on a losing ticket has enhanced or diminished a politician’s political standing (he excludes the two Veeps who won before they lost, Mondale and Quayle). Even he concedes the experience enhanced Lloyd Bentsen’s reputation (nobody blamed him for Dukakis’ poor performance), and lifted Sarah Palin from provincial obscurity to fame and fortune, if not higher office. And it’s really not that clear others on his list fatally lost caste thanks to a failed Veep run.

Sargent Shriver’s 1972 Veep candidacy should come with a giant asterisk ruling out any comparisons (or so we can all hope): he was the last-minute replacement on a doomed ticket and a constant reminder of George McGovern’s first choice, Tom Eagleton, and his subsequent controversial abandonment of the Missourian for a previously undisclosed mental health record.

Yes, Bob Dole had a poor debate performance in 1976 that may have hurt the ticket in a very close race, but Ford’s debate flub is remembered as more significant, and ’76 did not materially affect Dole’s climb to power in the Senate, which eventually gave him his presidential shot in 1996. No, Ferraro never won another political contest after ’84, but that was probably more because of revelations about her husband’s finances and her own missteps in New York politics than anything she did or didn’t do as a Veep candidate. No, Jack Kemp never had a comeback from his ’96 Veep gig with Dole, but you could argue he was already pretty much at the end of his career by then, and was no longer perceived as representing any wave of the future. Yes, some Democrats blamed Lieberman for Gore’s loss in 2000, but these were mostly retroactive criticisms from people angry at Lieberman’s later political career (Gore would not have been in a position to get robbed in Florida had Lieberman not been on the ticket to vastly boost Democratic margins in South Florida). And Lieberman’s later decline and fall as a Democrat were largely the result of his stubborn and enthusiastic support for the Iraq War, which hadn’t happened in 2000 even if it was already a distant gleam in George W. Bush’s eye.

Similarly, John Edwards stint as Veep candidate in 2004 wasn’t really the cause of his 2008 defeat: it was a candidate field dominated by two larger-than-life figures, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And even then, Edwards came pretty close to winning Iowa and keeping himself viable, assuming his Other Problems had remained obscure.

I’d say the Jack Kemp example is the best one Steve offers for a bad Veep candidacy curtailing one’s future prospects, and it’s not that strong. And the most important thing to remember about Paul Ryan is that he is 43 years old, younger than any of the people on Kornacki’s list, and in fact the youngest Veep nominee in either party since a guy named Richard Nixon back in 1952. Turns out Nixon had a long future of ups and downs. The same could be true of Ryan.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.