Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Palin = Quayle? Maybe Palin = Nixon

David Greenberg in Slate argues that Sarah Palin has no chance to be president. It's a sucker's bet to take the side that someone will be president -- only a very small handful of current politicians will ever be president, and so there are obviously lots of pols who "could" be president that, for various reasons, never achieve the brass ring. Still, I think Greenberg is mostly wrong in his approach, so I think it's worth taking another, somewhat different, look at the history. I should warn everyone: this is a long post, and I'm not going to have anything brilliant to say at the end, just the same speculation about Palin I've been speculating all week.

Greenberg says that:
Running and losing for vice president has never been a promising route to the Oval Office. Yet Sarah Palin, even before this week's book tour mediathon, has been touted by some as the heir apparent of the Republican Party, if not its de facto leader. Right-wing devotees cheer her on, liberals writhe in fear lest she come within 3,000 miles of the White House, and the news media lavish her with attention that's out of proportion to her actual chances of a political future. In fact, only one defeated vice presidential candidate ever achieved the feat that Palin would like to duplicate, and to date she shows no signs of resembling Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Furthermore, Greenberg concludes:
[O]f defeated vice presidential nominees, only Bob Dole did so (in 1996), and it took him 20 years (his emphasis).
OK, let's think about that. First, I think it's a mistake to really think about pre-1972 nomination contests; both the Vice-Presidency and the nomination process are just very different, so I don't think it tells us anything much. If we further restrict ourselves to defeated VP candidates, we're down to a fairly small group. Let's see what happened to them (in each case, only after the VP nomination):

Got nominated: Dole
Serious candidate, didn't get nominated: Muskie, Edwards
Washout presidential campaign: Shriver, Lieberman
Never ran for president: Ferraro, Bentsen, Kemp

Wait, that's not so bad! Three of eight were serious contenders. Greenberg is dismissive of the other five, but I think that's too strong. Yes, Shriver was an accidental VP candidate, and Lieberman was seriously out of step with his party (neither of which applies to Palin). Is it impossible to imagine Kemp running a serious campaign in 2000, or Bentsen in 1992? I don't see why not. (Looking a bit further, it looks like Kemp thought about running in '00, but didn't really take the race seriously. I don't remember him as a candidate, although I could be forgetting). Overall, I'm not seeing a VP nomination & defeat as a negative, at all.

Of course, we need something to compare it with. Greenberg starts by repeating the anecdote that John Kennedy believed that he would not have won the 1960 presidential nomination had he been successful in contesting for the 1956 VP nomination. What about our group here?

Bob Dole was set onto the national candidacy path in 1976, but by the time he finally captured the nomination he had been Republican Senate leader for several years; that was his main credential. On the other hand, without 1976 Dole probably does not run in 1980; without both, he might not have run (or done as well as he did) in 1988, and without that he doesn't get the nomination in 1996. I think it's hard to see 1976 as a negative.

Ed Muskie was elevated to frontrunner after 1968, but he was a national figure before that, and its certainly possible that he would have run in 1972 either way. In my opinion, it's hard to see 1968 hurting him in 1972, but one could argue that it didn't help, either. John Edwards was the runner-up in 2004; he certainly would have been a similar candidate in 2008 without the VP nod. It's worth mentioning here that had these men not been VP candidates, someone else would have, and that someone might have been a strong contender in 1972 and 2008, hurting the chances of Muskie and Edwards (and, of course, the same applies to Dole).

Of the five who did not come close to the nomination, it's hard to see how the VP campaign hurt. Lieberman was never going to be the Democratic nominee for president. Would Shriver run without it? I don't think so. If Bentsen didn't run in 1992 after performing well in 1988, it's hard to see him running (let alone winning) that year without 1988. Kemp's VP campaign didn't go as well; perhaps one could argue that 1996 took a little of the shine off him, but I think it's a hard case to make. And one can imagine a very different and more successful electoral career for Ferraro without 1984, but I think it's hard to imagine the White House in that career.

I think it's hard to go through the list without thinking of the VP nod as a net plus.

On the other hand, I'm not sure that "losing VP candidates" is the right category for Palin. Instead, I think we need to look at similar VP candidates -- those who were plucked out of obscurity, had rough campaigns, and were widely perceived as unqualified for the presidency. That list is pretty easy to compile: Dan Quayle; Gerry Ferraro; Spiro Agnew; and, breaking my post-reform rules, Richard Milhous Nixon. Why are they the relevant group? Palin already has enthusiastic supporters; what she doesn't have is the confidence, from those who are less partisan, that she's qualified to be president. So the question about Sarah Palin, it seems to me, is whether it's possible to change people's minds about whether a candidate reaches the threshhold, and I think those four are good cases.

First, Dan Quayle. Quayle was 41 when he was nominated for the presidency; he had served two terms in the House, and eight years in the Senate (very young, but a normal amount of experience). His campaign in 1988 was a disaster, beginning to end, and little he did in four years of the Vice Presidency changed that. After sitting out the 1996 race, he ran for president in 2000, but washed out early, and has apparently retired from politics. Quayle never overcame his poor start...had Bush won reelection in 1992, however, it's certainly plausible that Quayle could have won the 1996 nomination and been elected. As far as I know, Quayle did practically nothing in the 1990s after leaving office to enhance his reputation; he wrote a couple of books, but that's about it, as far as I know (and Wikipedia has nothing for that period). Dan Quayle certainly didn't change his reputation, but it doesn't look, to me at least, like he tried very hard.

OK, next up: Gerry Ferraro. Ferraro was 49 on election day 1984, and was in her third House term (not so young, but very little experience). The campaign went badly, mainly because of family legal troubles, which would also harm her future political career. Ferraro twice ran for the United States Senate, in 1992 and 1998, but failed to get the nomination in both cases. Unlike Quayle, it seems Ferraro tried pretty hard to improve her reputation, but it's fair to say that she never came remotely close to becoming a serious presidential candidate.

Spiro Agnew. Well, we'll never know, will we? Agnew was 50 when nominated. He, like Palin, was two years into the first term of a governorship. Before that, he had served four years as Baltimore County Executive, which is a bigger deal than Mayor of Wasilla, but not exactly close to the presidency. So, what can we say about Agnew? Had he and Nixon not been crooks, he would have presumably been a serious candidate for the Republican nomination in 1976. Nixon had no respect for Agnew (he wanted John Connally, but Connally had his own legal troubles in 1975), and Ronald Reagan would definitely have been a formidable candidate. Could Agnew have won? Hard to say. It's possible he would have washed out quickly; it's also possible that a popular Richard Nixon would have swallowed hard and supported Agnew to enhance Nixon's legacy.

And that leaves us...

Richard Nixon. Nixon was 39 when he was nominated. He had served two terms in House, and was in only his second year in the Senate (so his second year after winning statewide, same as Palin and Agnew). Like Quayle and Ferraro, Nixon had such a rough campaign that people thought he might get dumped from the ticket, but of the three Nixon came closest to being dumped. And like Quayle and Agnew, Nixon was no sure thing to stay on the ticket the second time around, although the logic of the situation (the president can't admit to the mistake) saved all three. Eight years of the Vice Presidency helped Nixon; so did a respectable campaign in 1960; so did good use made of the next eight years, especially after the failed bid for CA Governor in 1962. I think it's fair to say that by 1968, Nixon may have still been hated by liberals, but no one thought he was dramatically unqualified to be president.

OK, those are the comps. What do they tell us?

First, I think it's fair to say that none of these politicians would have been anywhere near the Oval Office without first being selected as Vice Presidential nominees. The one with the best case would be Nixon, but remember: someone was going to be Ike's VP, and whoever it was would have probably been perceived as more successful at it than Nixon, and would likely have had the nomination easily in 1960. It's really hard to construct an alternate history after that. Nixon certainly would have been a senior Senator from the nation's largest state had he continued to win reelection. Could he have remained as acceptable to both wings of the party if he had been casting votes in the Senate over the years? Would he have eventually seemed sufficiently presidential? I think it's safe to say that Agnew and Quayle would not have achieved that on their own, but harder to tell with Nixon.

However, the question we're asking about Palin isn't whether she would have had a chance without the VP pick; it's whether she has a chance with it. And as I look through the cases of similar candidates and the cases of other defeated VP choices, I can't find any of them who had presidential careers derailed by their VP candidacies -- including the ones who didn't do well on the national ticket.

I think the cases of Nixon and Quayle are the most helpful for thinking about Sarah Palin. We can imagine Richard Nixon reaching the presidency with or without the VP pick, because we know that Nixon had qualities -- smarts, work ethic, perseverance -- that would have served him well in politics one way or another. Dan Quayle wasn't a bad Senator, but he never showed those traits after the 1988 selection.

So, and I guess this is anticlimactic after all that, what I think all of this history shows is that there's nothing at all about being a losing VP candidate that disqualifies Sarah Palin from getting a nomination, or even hurts Sarah Palin's chances of being nominated. What hurts her chances is that right now, very few people beyond her intense supporters think she has any business being a national candidate. That can change, Nixon shows us, but so far she's not exactly off to a good start; in particular, resigning her office appears to be either an indication that she's not really interested in the presidency or a tremendous blunder. If I had to guess, I'd say that she is what she appears to be, and if that's the case her political career has already peaked, and the best she can hope for (as a politician) is a Jesse Jackson like factional campaign for a presidential nomination, although she certainly can have a lucrative career making money from her fans, if that's what she wants. I always caution people that we don't really know much from how a pol talks in public. Would it shock me if Palin puts together a serious political career? It would surprise me -- I don't see any indications of that in her record to date -- but stranger things have happened. What I am confident about is that had Tim Pawlenty been John McCain's choice for VP, we wouldn't be thinking about Sarah Palin right now, and the odds are strong that we would never, in the future, be thinking about Sarah Palin and the national ticket. She has a chance, but she just hasn't shown that she has, as Richard Ben Cramer said, what it takes to do it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?