John Locher / AP
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Disabled American Veterans National Convention in Las Vegas Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012.
As Mitt Romney’s supporters and his Democratic opponents anxiously wait for him to announce his running mate, a glance back at history will remind you that the person a presidential candidate chooses as his veep ordinarily makes little or no difference in the November election outcome.
Still, these choices sometimes fall in the category of a running mate who “solves a problem” that the presidential candidate had, or that the news media thought he had – such as lack of Washington experience or needing someone to bolster the ticket in the South.
Sometimes they fall in the category of “creating a problem” – the vice presidential pick makes blunders or has an awkward episode in his past – such as Dan Quayle’s service stateside in the National Guard rather than serving in Vietnam when U.S. forces were fighting there.
Quayle’s excessively enthusiastic, arm-pumping debut at the 1988 GOP convention and his humiliation by Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen in their televised debate were big news at the time, but as Doug Sosnik, the White House political director under Bill Clinton said in 1996, “Dan Quayle (in 1988) proved that no matter who you put on the ticket in the end doesn’t affect the outcome.”
Whether the pick ends up being consequential or not, the initial reaction to the choice by the news media and party activists often gives a few days of lift to the presidential candidate.
Yet the pundits’ and party activists’ initial impression of the running mate is sometimes sharply at odds with their later views of that person.
Case in point: Dick Cheney, whom the pundits applauded when George W. Bush chose him to be his running mate in 2000.
Columnist George Will wrote presciently in January of 2000, before Bush had locked up the nomination, that “because of doubts about Bush's intellectual weight and steadiness, if he is nominated his choice of running mate should give him a gravitas infusion. It might be Dick Cheney – pro-life and well-seasoned, he has been a congressman and White House chief of staff, and was secretary of defense during the Gulf War.”
And once Bush revealed his choice of Cheney, commentators were nearly unanimous in their admiration.
Baltimore Sun columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover wrote, "The Texas governor has added some obvious weight to the ticket. And by so doing, Mr. Bush seemed to demonstrate a self-confidence that is an essential quality in a successful presidential candidate or president.”
Even liberal commentator Jacob Weisberg, who was to spend the next eight years mocking Bush’s malapropisms, wrote for Slate that Cheney’s selection was “a shrewd pick. Al Gore would be lucky to find someone as suited to the job.”
Weisberg added, “Choosing a nominee for … substantive reasons rather than out of a transparent political calculation is a confident, mature thing to do. Bush looks good by picking someone whose primary value is that he could help the new president govern.”
Cheney did help Bush govern, perhaps too much, in the view of critics of the Bush administration. Cheney’s reputation for caution and defense policy expertise – much praised in the days after Bush chose him – suffered irreparably after the Iraq war took its painful and costly course.
Who will Mitt Romney pick as his running mate? NBC's Claire Leka reports.
Cheney’s 2000 counterpart, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, is another striking case: a man cheered by his party faithful when Al Gore chose him to be his running mate but whose reputation among Democrats was destroyed by the Iraq war, ultimately leading him to show up at the Republican convention in 2008 to speak for his friend the GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain.
When Gore picked Lieberman in 2000, Rep. Barney Frank, D- Mass., praised him as “a very thoughtful, very serious guy.”
But, an interviewer asked Frank, wasn’t Lieberman a cultural conservative – with his campaign against violent and sexist lyrics in popular music? Frank replied “Joe Lieberman's been terrific” in opposing anti-gay prejudice and is “a strong supporter of the right of a woman to choose whether or not to have an abortion. He's been very good on economic issues. So let me say if you want to define conservatism that way, fine.”
At the time Gore unveiled his choice of Lieberman, most commentators agreed with the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib: “It looks like a declaration of independence from Bill Clinton” because “this is the senator who went on the floor of the Senate first and said … we should rebuke Bill Clinton for his behavior” – his sexual liaison with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The Lieberman pick “creates a separation from Bill Clinton on that issue and kind of defuses the argument the Republicans were building to make … that they're the ones who can restore value and integrity to the White House,” Seib said.
NBC's Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro narrow down Mitt Romney's vice presidential candidate picks to three and discuss newly released poll numbers.
Some veep choices appear perfectly solid, sensible and potentially useful on the day they’re announced – and turn out to be just that, even though in the end they don’t provide the winning edge for the presidential candidate.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards seemed to bolster 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry.
Edwards, who never tired of telling audiences he was “the son of a mill worker,” had a knack for peppery populist rhetoric: "This democracy doesn’t belong to that crowd of insiders; it belongs to you,” he told campaign crowds. “I tell you what we ought to do with these Washington lobbyists: cut them off at the knees.”
True, Edwards failed to help Kerry win North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes, but even if the Democratic ticket had carried North Carolina it wouldn’t have been enough to win the White House.
(Edwards would go on to run another unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, and later was charged with violating campaign finance law to conceal an extramarital affair. After an acquittal on one count, and mistrials on the others, the Justice Department dropped the charges.)
Bentsen, the courtly, long-serving Texas senator, also seemed to fortify 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis. As the Almanac of American Politics wrote after the 1988 election, “Bentsen’s cool articulateness, his high competence, his mastery of issues, and his stature strengthened the ticket nationwide.” Like Edwards, Bentsen failed to bring his home state into the Democratic column – but, as in 2004, it didn’t matter. Even with Texas, Dukakis would have been far short of the electoral votes he needed to win.
In 1992 when Bill Clinton picked Gore to run with him, he gave the ticket a youthful, centrist, Southern identity: An Arkansan with a running mate from Tennessee and both of them in their 40s.
NBC’s Tim Russert said on the Today show that "Clinton has now calculated that Ross Perot is in this race till the end. It's a three-way race and Gore can help him enormously in the Border and Southern states.” And the Clinton-Gore ticket did carry seven Southern and Border States in 1992.
The cases of two GOP running mates, Bob Dole’s choice of Jack Kemp in 1996 and McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin four years ago, parallel each other.
In each instance, a war veteran and aging politician at the top of the ticket, not trusted by social conservatives, needed a vice presidential contender who could supply verve and spark enthusiasm among GOP voters.
Kemp and Palin – each in their own way – did generate excitement. But it’s difficult to argue that a different veep choice would have made any difference either in 1996 or 2008.
In 1996 the economy was in robust health and the electorate was fairly content with the incumbent. In 2008 the economy was heading for disaster, an unpopular war dragged on, and the electorate – exhausted by eight years of Bush-Cheney – sought a change. Those fundamental conditions, rather than Kemp’s or Palin’s flaws or virtues, decided the outcome.