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When the VP Selection Mattered



As Trump and Clinton are about to pick their VP candidates, it’s worth remembering that it basically doesn’t matter in terms of the election. It gives the chatterers something to talk about. Political junkies love it, but ultimately, it barely matters. If you pick someone completely incompetent like Sarah Palin or Dan Quayle, well, it doesn’t much matter. If you pick someone brilliant or highly experienced like Al Gore or Joe Biden, well, it doesn’t much matter. This probably won’t matter either, although I will laugh if Trump picks Gingrich and cry if it Clinton picks Cory Booker or the general. But it definitely did matter once, and that was 1944 when FDR was dying. Politico ran a story on that choice. We can always dream that he could have selected Henry Wallace again, but the party faithful barely acquiesced to Wallace in 1940. The conservatives hated him and FDR did not have the power in 1944 he once had within the party. He had to dump Wallace. Had FDR died before the 1944 election and Wallace taken over, maybe he could have won that fall before being utterly eviscerated in 1948. Rather, Roosevelt chose between two men, Harry Truman and William O. Douglas. We know what happened with the former. The latter is kind of fascinating to imagine, although it’s hard to see him beating Dewey in 1948. Unfortunately, the Politico article doesn’t even mention Douglas, instead focusing on Jimmy Byrnes, which wasn’t going to happen under FDR because he was too anathema to the liberals. Of course, FDR basically wouldn’t admit that he was dying and so actually choosing the next president was not really on his mind, thus he never told Truman about the Manhattan Project outside of what was necessary when he was in the Senate to stop his investigative committee, for instance. Truman actually did ask Douglas to be his VP in 1948. Douglas declined however and Alben Barkley became VP instead.

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  • TM1

    You forgot to mention Jimmy Byrnes as a real possibility. He would have never integrated the military like Truman courageously did.

    Truman may not be the greatest president, but he’s my favorite president. Wallace would have been a disaster and acquiesced to Stalin in Europe and probably handed over Korea to a psychopathic crime family, and as I said above Byrnes would have been a disaster on civil rights. Douglass would be OK but don’t see him winning in’48 as you said.

    FDR really proved his mettle in picking Truman. The only question that matters in VP selections is “can this person take over if in a crisis?” Roosevelt aced it.

    • wjts

      Truman may not be the greatest president, but he’s my favorite president.

      I dunno. I reckon his legacy is at least as mixed as Johnson’s. The National Security Act of 1947 had many deeply ugly consequences.

      • TM1

        Marshall Plan. Integration of the military. Creation of NATO. Berlin airlift. Saving half of Korea from the Kim family*. Firing MacArthur. Standing up to McCarthy.

        A President Taft for example would have done none of that but also probably not signed the NSA and gone back to Coolidge domestic policies. Who would you prefer?

        *yes I know the Parks were bad in their own way but only an idiot would argue NK worked out better in the long run.

        • ForkyMcSpoon

          Surely the contradictions in NK are heightened to nearly their maximum extent. A libertarian utopia is around the corner!

          • Lurker

            Yeah. “Somalia” is a very possible outcome from the final failure of the Kim monarchy.

        • wjts

          Who would you prefer?

          Truman, unquestionably. And I would have preferred Johnson to Goldwater. That doesn’t excuse the problems of the Johnson administration. My favorite president was Roosevelt. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any substantial bad actions during his administration.

        • Lev

          Didn’t Truman institute loyalty oaths for federal employees? Not sure how that thwarted McCarthy.

          • Bruce Vail

            Yes, ‘Standing Up to McCarthy’ should not be counted as one of Truman’s accomplishments. He despised McCarthy as a Republican blowhard, but he didn’t do anything to rein in McCarthy or McCarthyism.

            • EliHawk

              Yeah, he was pretty politically weakened by that point from Korea and Corruption scandals, and McCarthy was in full pomp. Hell, even Ike (who was about as independently popular as any politician, ever) didn’t stand up to McCarthy until he took on the Army.

        • LFC

          Along w the Marshall Plan and NATO, ‘the Truman doctrine’, as embodied in the speech explaining the extension of aid to Greece and Turkey, set the US course/role in the world for decades to come. The US support for the French in Vietnam began during the Truman admin (deepened by Eisenhower). Truman’s ‘Point Four’ was the origin of postwar US ‘development assistance’. Many of the basic lines of US Cold War policy were set during the Truman Admin. How one judges all this depends partly or largely on one’s view of the US role in the world during the CW. (My own verdict wd probably be somewhere in betw, say, Perry Anderson and Melvyn Leffler, to be cryptic.)

    • The accounts I heard suggested that FDR was barely involved in choosing Truman. He was a candidate nobody really disliked enough to actively oppose.

  • Murc

    I think it does matter a bit more than you say, Erik, perversely because the political impact is so low these days.

    Picking a VP is basically saying “I trust this person to be President if the worst happens and I die in office, and I ask you to trust them as well.” That’s an actual important decision, and how it is made reflects on a persons decision-making skills and judgment in general.

    Also, statistically speaking… at some point in the future a President is gonna die in office again and their Veep is gonna take over. So yeah, it’s a tiny bit important from a good governance standpoint.

    • xq

      Yeah. Clinton is 68. Trump is 70. It’s not all that likely either would die in office, being rich people with great medical care, but it’s not that remote a possibility.

  • slothrop1

    250,000 murdered. He’s a big hero. Thanks for the reminder. Bonus!

    • TM1

      How many Germans did FDR “murder”? Is he sufficiently Purely Progressive ™ for you?

      For that matter how many people did Stalin murder? Lenin? Robespierre?

      • JMP

        It’s slothrop; I’m sure no politician who ever won an election is pure enough for him, only Eugene Debs and Ralph Nader are good enough to support without being a traitor to liberalism.

        • efgoldman

          only Eugene Debs and Ralph Nader are good enough to support without being a traitor to liberalism.

          But if either of them had actually been nominated or elected, then they too would be sellouts, unicorn killers, and traitors to the cause.
          His act isn’t at Jenny levels quite yet, but it’s getting really, really tired.

          • JMP

            He’s definitely one who makes me wonder if he really believes what he’s writing, or simply a troll in the classic sense who is just trying to piss people.

        • Quite Likely

          I don’t know if it’s that unreasonable of a position for someone to take that the American government is essentially an evil organization and that the people who are elected to preside over it are all tainted to one degree or another. There’s no necessity for someone to move their standards for morality to a point where at least some Presidents make the cut.

      • slothrop1

        American Cowards. Light on the fucking hill, Shadows on the wall.

      • slothrop1

        There is no moral equivalency. We are just better. Thank you for the clarification.

    • The Dark God of Time
      • TM1

        Oh come on, everybody knows any opponent of the USA in war is automatically are 100% virtuous victims because reasons.

        Fuck Imperial Japan. The vast majority of their victims were other Asians and I’m glad they got wiped the fuck out and that Japan is a decent peaceful democratic nation tofay.

        • slothrop1

          Thank you for your refreshing racism.

          • TM1

            I’m also glad Nazi Germany got what was coming to it,

            Clearly, I’m racist against Germans.

            • slothrop1

              Nah. No big deal. You just need your ass kicked.

              • The Dark God of Time

                Thanks for showing what Progressivism is really about: Making schoolyard taunts.

              • This is the kind of remark that makes one no longer welcome to comment here. Take it to heart.

                • brad

                  You’re just a… just a… you’re a neoliberal Dave Matthews fan and I hate you Dad!
                  *slams bedroom door a few times*

                • TM1

                  Beware of Officer Loomis.

                • slothrop1

                  Translation: racist garbage = LGM hors d’oeuvres.

                  Sorry, I’m not with the whole eliminate-German/Asian-scum-firebombing-Enola Gay-human-barbecue fetishism.

              • efgoldman

                You just need your ass kicked.

                What, by you? You’d have to put down the Cheetos and come up out of Mom’s basement first.

              • You’re a real Internet Tough Guy.

          • Mike in DC
      • slothrop1

        Wussy must have some song to make me feel better.

    • socraticsilence

      I’m sure if he’d only left Western Germany to the Soviets, the citizens of Dresden could have received the warm and humanitarian treatment visited upon the denizens of Berlin by the Red Army.

    • Bootsie

      So is your next trick to respond to people pointing out the Holocaust and the absolute hellhole Japan turned eastern Asia into by mentioning Native Americans and/or Japanese interment?

      That’s usually how this discussion goes.

      • TM1

        Yeah, and that’s just sad. I don’t quite get the pass certain segments of the left give to Imperial Japan. Has the United States been perfect in East Asia since 1945? Hell no, but it’s infinitely preferable to the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” which would only be marginally less genocidal than a Nazi New Order in Europe would have been.

        An Imperial Japan faced with a Vietnam War situation would have just dropped dozens of A-bombs for example.

        • Woodrowfan

          and what were the alternatives?
          Starving Japan out? That’d cost far more casualties.
          Invasion? bloodbath on both sides.
          Continued conventional bombing. that’d kill even more people than the A-Bombs
          Negotiate? And leave the Japanese military in power? Really?
          Yeah, it’s “conventional wisdom” but using the A-Bombs did end the war and saved lives over the alternatives. I am open to the idea that the 2d bomb was not necessary as the US didn’t give the Japanese enough time after the first bomb to understand what happened. A possible demonstration (nuking an island somewhere after inviting the Japanese military to watch) also has possibilities. I am not sure it’d work though, as even after two cities were destroyed the Japanese military was still divided over surrendering.

          There’s also the idea that using the bombs in 1945 reduced the chances they’d have been used during the Cold War—the idea of the “Cracked Crystal Ball.” Because policymakers could see what even the less-powerful earlier devices could do to a city, they could imagine what the more powerful later devices could do. Otherwise they’d just have images of tests in the Pacific and in Nevada and nuclear weapons become just another really big bomb they had available.

  • ForkyMcSpoon

    I think it mattered in 1960 and 1972 as well.

    Take heart that Christie gets to appoint Booker’s replacement, and Booker isn’t exciting enough. If they’re going to risk losing a senate seat, it’s going to be for Warren.

    • Colin Day

      1972? When did Spiro Agnew become president?

      • ForkyMcSpoon

        Ok, 1974.

        I mean, Agnew’s selection still kinda mattered. I mean, because he picked Agnew, the whole ticket went down, further amplifying the damage. So let’s make that 1972 AND 1974.

  • JMP

    I’d disagree that it didn’t matter in 2008; while chances were looking better for Obama than McCain, the latter still had a decent shot at winning, and the disastrous pick of a total incompetent who couldn’t even handle gimme questions from Katie Couric completely doomed him, there were more than a few undecideds swayed to voting Obama once Palin consistently kept proven to be an idiot who had no clue what she was talking about.

    Also, I’d thinking the worst VP pick ever in 1972 probably had some effect; McGovern wasn’t going to win but he probably wouldn’t have lost all but one state plus Washington if he hadn’t picked a dangerous nutcase then completely bungled handling him before finally kicking him off the ticket.

    • junker

      I think your characterization of someone with a major depressive disorder as a “dangerous nutcase” is insulting and demeaning to sufferers of mental illness.

      • TM1

        Thanks for this, was about to say the same thing. I personally know a sufferer of post-traumatic stress and it’s no exagerattion to say ECT literally saved his life. He is not a “dangerous nutcase” and neither was Eagleton.

      • JMP

        Major depressive disorder? Granted, most of my knowledge of that race comes from Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, but according to that he was fairly dangerous mental issues that meant he had no spot on a national ticket.

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          I don’t quite trust Thompson on that kind of thing- can’t say exactly why, he’s a great read but somehow the older I’ve gotten the less seriously I take him

          • Because Thompson was a drug-addled paranoid whose writing should mostly be considered autobiographical fiction, not actual reporting. I say this enjoying the man’s work, but he is not remotely reliable as a source of fact.

            • Ahuitzotl

              You mean Muskie wasnt using Ibogaine on the campaign trail?

        • junker

          I think you can argue that someone with a major mood disorder might be unfit for the Presidency, while also avoiding cheap insults of the mentally ill like “nutcase.”

          • bender

            Such as Lincoln?

            I believe historians say he had recurring bouts of depression, but in the nineteenth century they called that melancholy and it was not regarded as mental illness, only as the mark of a grave temperament. Fortunately for the Union, electroshock therapy had not yet been invented.

            Winston Churchill famously suffered from depression too.

      • efgoldman

        I think your characterization of someone with a major depressive disorder as a “dangerous nutcase” is insulting and demeaning to sufferers of mental illness.

        I was going to go there but you did first. Tom Eagleton was actually a good guy who had depression earlier in his life. In 1972, though, some people did buy the “nutcase” theory. And Tricksie Dicksie, being who and what he was, would certainly have used it.
        JMP is correct, though – it really made no difference that year, McGovern, also a good guy and a war hero, was going to lose regardless.

        • Eagleton was anti-abortion — Catholic — but other than that he was a good Democrat. As for the “dangerous nutcase” claim, this was also an election where it was a matter of controversy whether a presidential candidate had teared up while speaking in defense of his wife. These are viewpoints we need to reevaluate.

    • Scott Lemieux

      latter still had a decent shot at winning


      • Philip

        W and his veep and settled that pretty nicely years in advance.

  • TM1

    The whole question of who is best qualified to take over is why I’m for Kaine. He was my Mayor back in the day and was a damn good one in a not insignificantly sized, majority minority city. He fought housing discrimination against blacks in the West End prior to becoming mayor and instituted one of the best gun control urban initiatives ever called Project Exile. Was governor of a good sized state, and focused on getting foreign policy knowledge in the Senate. He’s boring, sure, but I’m pretty sure he could take over if God forbid Hillary dies or has to resign and be a decently progressive Democratic president.

    • Colin Day

      Should we use “boring” as an insult here? Yes, Al Gore was boring, but so is having planes take off from Boston and land in California without hitting skyscrapers along the way.

      • TM1

        Good point. Boring technocratic white guy isn’t necessarily such a horrible thing. Kaine left the city and state in better shape than he found it, that he isn’t exciting or has a weird wondering eyebrow is beside the point.

  • AMK

    It matters for the media narrative surrounding the ticket, which in turn has some influence.

    And post citizens-united, it matters for fundraising, which of course matters. A dollar figure can actually be put on the choice.

    • LosGatosCA

      It mattered before Citizens United as well. Dan Quayle’s real value for Bush I were his well heeled backers in Indiana and Michigan. Even after he won the ’88 election Bush was constantly fundraising with Quayle’s connections.

  • A moment that’s also the source of the most misunderstood “statement” about labor’s power in the 20th century:

    “Clear it with Sidney.”

  • Joe_JP

    I think it might matter for Trump — if he picks someone that Republicans can at least convince themselves is semi-trustworthy, it gives some another reason to vote, including for down ticket races.

    Somewhat less for Clinton, but she is an older candidate (as is Trump) but it wouldn’t shock me if a sliver of the electorate is sexist or for some other reason doubtful on Clinton & reassured some by the v.p. Some might have been reassured Biden was the v.p. with the less experienced Obama too.

  • Peterr

    The selection of Admiral James Stockdale by Ross Perot in 1992, while perhaps not fatal to Perot’s quixotic independent run, certainly hurt it after the VP candidate’s debate. A non-trivial number of folks who may have been considering Perot watched that train wreck and made up their minds to look again at Clinton and Poppy Bush.

    • JMP

      “Who am I, why am I here?” While Perot had probably already fatally damaged his bizarre campaign’s chances when he suddenly quit the race then un-quit a few months later, justifying it with a conspiracy theory about Bush operatives interrupting his daughter’s weeding, picking a running mate who came off as senile certainly didn’t help, and it pushed Perot’s campaign into being the national joke it probably should have been from the start.

      • twbb

        The worst part of that entire situation is it unfairly ruined the reputation of an extremely accomplished soldier and intellectual.

  • junker

    But seriously, please pick Newt or the pro-choice , pro-gay marriage general.

    • efgoldman

      But seriously, please pick Newt or the pro-life, pro-am marriage general

      Since Combover Caligula is himself at least the equal of Snowbillie Snookie, and he is, after all, the candidate, he could pick Abe Lincoln or George Washington from the zombie files and it won’t help him.
      In fact Abe would probably slap him upside the head so hard, his weave would go into orbit.

    • Woodrowfan

      the general who cowrote a book with a scholar who is determined to rehabilitate Fascism as a legitimate political movement?

  • Pseudonym

    I think Trump’s the one looking at a general, while Clinton’s supposedly vetting an admiral (and former Supreme Allied Commander).

    • efgoldman

      Clinton’s supposedly vetting an admiral (and former Supreme Allied Commander).

      Who’s also the dean of a very prestigious law/graduate school (Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts)

      • Pseudonym

        I don’t care how prestigious a law/graduate school is, “dean” will never be as cool a title as “Supreme Allied Commander”.

  • twbb

    “it’s worth remembering that it basically doesn’t matter in terms of the election.”

    No, it hasn’t mattered in the recent history of elections. Why after the insanity of the current election cycle we should think that any of these kinds of rules is a universal and unchanging law escapes me. A mainstream presidential candidate called for peaceful protesters to be roughed up at a rally. The rules have pretty much gone out the window.

    • Bruce Vail

      Yeah, that’s right. A lot of the old rules are out the window.

      Seems to me a lot of Republican debate about Trump’s VP pick is based on an unspoken assumption that a victorious Trump would not complete his presidential term. Thus, I would not be surprised to see the Convention revolt against Trump and pick somebody like Paul Ryan for VP.

      • econoclast

        Are delegates completely unbound with respect to the VP choice?

  • Woodrowfan

    how about those times when there was a negative influence because a bad choice was made? Would the US have been a better place if Clay had been William Henry Harrison’s Veep instead of Tyler. If Lincoln had kept Hamlin instead of replacing him with Andrew Johnson? I always kind of liked Thomas Marshall, but he had no backbone when it came to stand up to Wilson’s wife, doctor, and secretary (i.e. chief of staff) in late 1919 when Wilson was incapacitated.

    Then there’s the choice of Teddy in 1900 after Hobart died in 1899. That’s arguably as big as FDR’s choice in 1944. (Or JFK’s in 1960)

  • Latverian Diplomat

    I’m not sure even the Vice President had need to know for the Manhattan Project.

    On the one hand they were months away from a working weapon. On the other, the project was in place and running smoothly. So, for these two reasons, it would have been unlikely that Truman would have had to be prepared to make immediate decisions about it upon assuming the Presidency. Had FDR lived a little longer, that would have changed, but even in April I think it was a defensible choice.

  • thispaceforsale

    I guess it depends on what you mean by “matters” Palin has arguably had a greater impact since 2008 than her running mate. And had a different person been selected VP, there would be no Palin brand to have ravaged large areas of the country. Similarly so, the selection of Paul Ryan did not matter to getting Romney elected, but it certainly fed a media narrative that gives far more weight and respect to the things he says now than it might otherwise have. And in a different direction, had Obama selected a VP other than Biden, that person may now be the presumptive nominee.

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