How important is a VP candidate?

Photo by Mark Warner

By Michael P. Riccards

John Nance Garner, FDR’s vice president for his first two terms, once said that the office was not worth a pitcher of warm spit. Yet if he had curtailed his anti-New Deal sentiments, he might have continued and become vice president in 1944 (and president in 1945).

As both candidates in 2020 begin the contest for popular and electoral votes, the choice of vice president has commanded attention, especially in the Democratic Party. Some Republicans have suggested that President Donald J. Trump dump Vice President Mike Pence, but the president has said that Pence has been loyal to him. Actually the real issue in the election is Trump’s record, which is more important than even the Democratic nominee.

Biden, in the lead now, is 77 and has had brain surgery twice. Any voter must be concerned about his possible successor. Biden has chosen Senator Kamala Harris, a former law enforcement figure in California.

Usually a candidate would choose a running mate who would add to his appeal, like John Kennedy did by adding Texan Lyndon Johnson to the 1960 ticket. But people rarely vote for a vice president. However, they may vote against a ticket if they are troubled by the vice presidential candidate.

The real significance in selecting a vice presidential candidate is the possibility the candidate could become president. For example, the urban bosses in the 1944 Democratic National Convention surely knew that they were choosing a president as they watched the frail FDR. They dumped Henry Wallace because they regarded him as a weird spiritualist and a Republican at heart — which he was. Later he became a confused progressive in 1948.

But there can be no assurances of what a vice president will do when thrust into the Oval Office. In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt at the tender age of 42 became president when President Willian McKinley was assassinated. He promised to keep McKinley’s agenda, but instead soon brought the progressive movement to the White House.

Biden and Harris are not a balanced ticket, except geographically. But in the later primaries, Biden promised to name a Black woman, and it was those constituencies that gave him South Carolina and the nomination. It was time to reward party loyalty. In the long run, Harris’ race is important, especially in times of racial unrest. And the feminist movement, wary of Trump’s abuses, has come around to a tougher line on inclusion.

Running mates then are important for several reasons, one of which is the message presidential candidates are sending to the public. Trump continues with Pence to keep his evangelical base. Biden is reaching out to keep Black and also female voters, especially those in the suburbs, in the party tent.

Michael P. Riccards, a former college president. is the author of 30 books, including a two-volume history of the presidency, The Ferocious Engine of Democracy, and the recently published Woodrow Wilson as Commander-in-Chief. He is providing the Jandoli Institute with commentary and analysis about the 2020 presidential campaign.

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