Not all that long ago, a group of pundits, including myself, addressed the questions swirling around the re-election prospects of the president — namely, about the potential drag that his vice president might represent. The nation was caught in an unpopular war, and some suggested that the best way to change fortunes for the president would be to jettison his first running mate. The vice president had no real future in party politics anyway, and his addition to the ticket had been perceived as politically irrelevant. A fresh running mate in the next election would signal new directions for the administration, generate enthusiasm among younger voters, and allow the party to groom a successor who could run for what would essentially be the incumbent's third term in the election that followed four years later. We even had a candidate for the replacement running mate.
As it turned out, of course, George W. Bush never did cut Dick Cheney loose, but the rumors persisted that he would do so even after his re-election. Such was the concern over the dead end presented by the vice president in those days, with the Republican Party worried that no one of great national stature would follow Bush in the 2008 election. By that time, of course, the nation had fatigued of Bush and Republican leadership, and the financial crash of 2008 cemented what was already a likely Democratic walkover. A new vice president in 2004 would have done little for Republican fortunes in 2008.
The report in the New York Post over the weekend that Barack Obama might dump Joe Biden for his re-election bid, in favor of Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, brings back all of the wasted analysis of the Rice-for-Cheney trade, and suggests that we’ll be in store for more of the same in the next few months. In all likelihood, it will turn out to have the same ending.
There are a few similarities between the two elections. Bush’s war in Iraq, always controversial, began losing popularity when the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted in 2004. Obama took ownership of the Afghanistan War with his troop escalation in 2009, and his half-measure drawdown announced last month. Neither vice president represented strong electoral states or delivered votes in significant numbers. Cheney’s public image took a beating before the 2004 election, and probably acted as a net drag on the ticket, while Biden’s penchant for gaffes and the utter failure of his "Recovery Summer" public-relations campaign last year make him a target for ridicule. Like Cheney, Biden has little hope of being taken seriously as a presidential contender at the end of Obama’s run, either in one term or two, as he is already 69 years old, and will be nearly 74 when the 2016 election arrives. In comparison, the younger Cuomo has just finished a very successful and centrist legislative session. He will be 59 in 2016, and just hitting his political stride.
For all that, though, the odds are long that President Obama will dump Biden, a man he chose to give the ticket more heft in foreign policy, a role from which Biden has retreated ever since the election. First, there is no indication that Obama is unhappy with his 2008 choice. But even if he has become disenchanted, he can’t do much about it. Unless Biden gets seriously ill, a change in running mate becomes a tacit admission of error in choosing him in the first place. The Rice-for-Cheney trade speculation also involved using Cheney’s very real heart disease as a handy alibi to avoid admitting a mistake in the first real test of a president.
That's one reason we haven’t had a change at the running mate position since Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose Harry Truman to run in 1944 over Henry Wallace, who had become far too enamored of the Bolshevik revolution to remain FDR’s second. In that case, the risk was infinitesimal; FDR might have been able to replace Wallace with a turnip and still roll to victory in the 1944 election.
The electoral strategy doesn’t hold much water, either. Few vice presidents have gone on to succeed presidents in elections, as opposed to succeeding through death, even for two-term presidents. George H.W. Bush was one of the exceptions, and the only one to manage it in consecutive terms since Martin Van Buren. Former VP Richard Nixon also managed to get elected president, but it took eight years and two tries for him to succeed. Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Al Gore all failed, as did Gerald Ford, even after succeeding to the presidency through Nixon’s resignation. American history is littered with the names of now-obscure vice presidents like Charles Dawes, Levi P. Morton, Alben Barkley, and Richard Johnson, whose time at the No. 2 position represented the pinnacle of their public life.
Finally, even if Biden withdrew for his own reasons, Cuomo would not be a likely candidate to replace him on the ticket. Cuomo just started his first term as governor six months ago. Obama may be in trouble in 2012, but not because he can’t carry New York; if he needs Cuomo to save the Empire State for Democrats, he’s heading for a landslide defeat anyway. Hillary Clinton would be a more likely and effective choice, as would a Midwestern or Rust Belt current or former governor who would help Obama shore up his standing in places that matter, like Indiana with Evan Bayh, or Pennsylvania with Ed Rendell, or even perhaps Tennessee with Phil Bredesen.
As with Vice President Condoleezza Rice, a Vice President Andrew Cuomo will almost certainly remain a lively topic for pundits playing fantasy politics rather than a realistic prognostication for the 2012 election. Obama will have to stand for a second term yoked to his current vice president, and endure the public evaluation of his term. In the end, voters base their decision on the top of the ticket rather than the bottom.