Ryan, Romney, and a Brief History of How Vice Presidents Are MadeBy http://profile.typepad.com/byrnesms // August 12, 2012 in US History
Bill asked about the historical context of picking vice-presidential candidates. I don't usually take requests, but since Bill and I go back over 30 years now, I'll make an exception.
There have been many of these choices over the last 200-plus years, so it is impossible to generalize with much accuracy, but here's my best attempt.
As Bill noted, the original idea in the Constitution was that the runner-up for president became vice-president. So for the first four elections, technically there was no candidate for vice-president, just candidates for president. In practice, everyone knew that in those first two elections, Washington was the only candidate. But in 1796, the first contested election, that system led to the awkward Jefferson vice-presidency under Adams. They had run against each other, representing different parties, but served together (imagine Vice-President McCain serving under President Obama).
The emergence of the party system had created a complication that the Framers did not foresee. Not wanting to repeat the 1796 outcome, party discipline led to the even more awkward 1800 outcome, when all the Republican electors voted for both Jefferson and Aaron Burr, leaving them tied for the presidency, despite the fact that everyone knew Jefferson led the ticket. Ironically, Hamilton's Federalist supporters in the House gave the presidency to Jefferson because they saw him as less dangerous than Burr.
That's when we changed the Constitution (the 12th Amendment) to prevent that outcome. From that point on, more or less, the sectional nature of our politics usually dominated, and party needs dominated. The parties needed some kind of regional balance, because both parties tried to be bisectional: a northern presidential candidate needed a southern VP and vice versa. That idea took a severe hit in the 1850s with the rise of a Republican Party that effectively did not exist in the south. But that sectional dynamic even largely survived the Civil War (at least in the Democratic Party) and persisted well into the 20th century.
It began to weaken, I'd argue, due to two post-World War II developments: 1) the civil rights movement, which began to alter the sectional nature of our politics, and 2) the cold war (and FDR's death) which sensitized the public to the need for someone capable of taking over the responsibilities of not just national but world leadership. Different ideas of "balance" emerged. So when JFK had to choose, he thought about both section and experience in picking LBJ.
But as geography waned as a consideration, ideology became more important and the concept of ideological balance grew in prominence. For decades now, the general tendency has been to balance someone associated with the party base with someone more mainstream and vice versa. In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower, who was a little too internationalist and moderate for the isolationist, McCarthyite wing of the party, picked Richard Nixon, the smart man's McCarthy. The moderate (and southern) Jimmy Carter had the liberal (and northern) Walter Mondale. The conservative Ronald Reagan picked the moderate George H. W. Bush, and Bush in turn picked the more conservative Dan Quayle. The liberal (and northern) Michael Dukakis chose the more moderate (and southern) Lloyd Bentsen. (Sectionalism took a lot longer to fade in the Democratic Party.)
Romney's choice of Paul Ryan can certainly be seen as part of this pattern. But the single best parallel I see is to Bob Dole's choice of Jack Kemp in 1996. In the aftermath of the Gingrich revolution in 1994, Dole was in the uncomfortable position of being a moderate legislator with a record of pragmatic compromising in the Senate. To counter that, he chose a well-known conservative ideologue.
Romney's pick is in that mold, I think-Romney has no coherent ideological identity of his own, so he's trying to adopt one by choosing Ryan. The idea of ideologically complementing the nominee is there. But I'd say something more fundamental is present: it is an attempt to balance Romney's lack of a core with someone who has one. It is less about ideology than authenticity.
The danger in that approach is that Ryan may be seen not as a complement to the nominee, but as a contrast to Romney-and in a way that highlights Romney's weaknesses as a candidate instead of compensating for them. The question is how the public will perceive the ideological conviction of Ryan compared to the ideological malleability of Romney.
Romney seems to me to be trying to banish his own public image and substitute for it Ryan's, so as to reboot a campaign that has not been going well. If so, that means Romney has effectively given up on trying to woo independents and undecideds, and has committed to a strategy of mobilizing and turning out the base.
The Tea Party lost in the primaries when the Republican voters got to choose and they ended up stuck with a nominee they did not want and do not like. Ironically, in the vice-presidential choice, they got their man when there was only one voter, and that one voter was the very man they did not choose. There is indeed something odd about how we pick vice-presidential candidates.
Mark puts America's current policy debates in historical context on his blog, The Past is Not the Past.
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