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The Best/Worst Vice Presidential Picks in History... and Paul Ryan

Posted: 09/05/2012 10:25 am

Something of a cottage industry has emerged on ranking the presidents. Indeed, ever since the first scholarly ranking poll debuted in 1948, historians and pundits have debated the standing of the nation's commanders-in-chief. More recently, the selection of Paul Ryan as the Republican vice presidential nominee has produced a flurry of assessments and predictions as to whether he will help or hurt Mitt Romney in November.

So, combining the two issues and, because Americans love their ranking lists, here is a list of the best and worst vice presidential picks in modern times, with thoughts on how Ryan stacks up.

The Worst

5. Joe Lieberman

Of course, the 2000 presidential race infamously came down to just 537 votes in Florida and analysts are still scratching their heads in an effort to figure out exactly what Lieberman brought to the ticket (other than the historic first of nominating a Jewish vice president). Any number of other possible vice presidential picks may have helped Al Gore swing a state from red to blue and thereby win the presidency. Former Florida senator, Bob Graham, for instance would have delivered Florida for Gore. Only a few years after joining the Democratic ticket, Lieberman repeatedly voted against his party and then switched parties.

4. Dan Quayle

Even George H. W. Bush seemed to realize his mistake as soon as he selected the Indiana senator to be his running mate in 1988. The young vice president's public appearances were kept to a minimum yet, during the campaign and his four years in office, Quayle repeatedly embarrassed the White House with his constant malapropisms and gaffes. Perhaps never in American history has there been such a steady call for a president to dump his number two.

3. Spiro Agnew

Having played the attack dog for most of his political career, Richard Nixon was eager to assign that role to his vice presidential pick in 1968. And so Agnew was relegated to making ridiculous comments such as his description of the media as "the nattering nabobs of negativism." The relatively unknown Maryland governor never became a part of Nixon's inner circle or policy-making team, but he did violate the cardinal rule that the VP shall not embarrass the boss! Agnew was forced to resign in 1973 amid charges of unethical behavior.

2. Sarah Palin

Although the bombastic Alaska governor temporarily put some wind behind the sails of the moribund McCain campaign in 2008, perhaps never in history has a vice presidential nominee been more divisive or less ready to govern. In interviews and public comments in the days after her selection, it became shockingly clear that Palin knew virtually nothing about even the basics of American democracy, let alone the complicated policy issues facing the next administration.

1. Thomas Eagleton

No Democrat, including George McGovern, had a real shot of beating Richard Nixon in 1972. However, the South Dakota senator sealed his fate when he selected Eagleton. After being turned down by other potential vice presidential picks, McGovern asked Eagleton if there were any skeletons in his closet. Satisfied with the Missouri senator's assurance, McGovern picked him, only to find out he had undergone medical "shock therapy." After saying he would back his pick "1,000 percent," McGovern was forced to dump Eagleton during the uproar over the scandal.


The Best

5. Walter Mondale

After years of war abroad, civil strife at home, and scandal in Washington, by 1976 the country was in the mood for change. The former farmer and Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, fit the bill. However, there was concern about Carter's lack of legislative and international experience. So, his selection of Mondale, a popular, experienced legislator, likely helped Carter win a tight race that fall. Mondale went on to play a policy role in the Carter White House, one of the first vice presidents in history to do so.

4. Al Gore

Bill Clinton was one of the most gifted and charismatic politicians in American history. However, he was hounded by sexual scandals and concerns that a governor of a small, southern state would not be ready to handle foreign policy issues. However, Clinton's selection of Gore, who was as responsible as Clinton was reckless, and who had extensive foreign and national security policy credentials, balanced the ticket nicely in 1992. Moreover, Gore was ready to govern and assumed an important policy role in the White House.

3. George H.W. Bush

Bush gave Ronald Reagan a run for his money in 1980. So, his selection by Reagan as vice president helped unite the party. Moreover, Bush, with a long political resume and extensive international experience, helped calm concerns about Reagan lacking substance and a command of the policy issues. Like Gore and Clinton (for the first seven years of their time in office), Reagan and Bush developed one of the better working relationships between presidents and vice presidents.

2. Lyndon B. Johnson

Conventional wisdom suggests that people do not vote based on the vice presidential pick. However, Johnson's presence on the Democratic ticket in 1960 likely helped John Kennedy win. Not only was Johnson one of the most gifted legislative wranglers in history (he could help promote Kennedy's agenda in Congress), but after Kennedy's assassination Johnson would go on to serve as a capable president in his own right.

1. Harry Truman

By 1944 two things were apparent to Franklin Roosevelt's senior aides: (1) the President might not live through his next term; and (2) Henry Wallace had become a liability on the ticket and had to go. After debating several possible vice presidential replacements at the Democratic convention, the Roosevelt team belatedly settled on the senator from Missouri. Sure enough, only weeks after the start of his unprecedented fourth term in office and during one of the most critical hours in world history, Roosevelt was dead and Truman was president. Truman would go on to make some of the greatest and most difficult decisions in history.

Paul Ryan

Everyone agrees that Mitt Romney's selection of Ryan was a "bold" move. Ryan offers a fresh, young face for Republicans and his policy positions contrast sharply with President Obama's. He is popular with the party's base (the same group that never warmed to Romney) and his speech at the Republican convention was well delivered and very well received.

Yet, Ryan remains largely unknown to most Americans and shares the dubious distinction of joining Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin as the only recent vice presidential picks to be viewed by less than half the American public as qualified for the office. Moreover, his presence on the ticket might hurt Romney's chances with three important voting blocs: (1) His positions on Medicare and Social Security may alarm senior citizens who constitute a sizeable vote in key swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania; (2) while Republicans struggle to close the gender gap, Ryan does little to help Romney among women voters; and (3) he has consistently opposed the Dream Act and other issues popular with Latino voters.

Grade: C

Paul Ryan both helps and hurts Romney. What grade would you give the selection of Paul Ryan and who do you think were the best/worst vice presidential picks in history?

Robert P. Watson, Ph.D. has published 34 books on American politics and history, and serves as Professor and Coordinator of American Studies at Lynn University (site of the third/final presidential debate in 2012)

 
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