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Mark Shields: Vice President Nomination Often a Steppingstone to Oblivion

The first very first “presidential” test in public for every nominee for the White House is the selection of a vice presidential running mate.

Right after the 1968 Miami Beach convention where he had won the Republican nomination, Richard M. Nixon explained why he chose his running mate: “There is a mysticism about men. There is a quiet confidence. You look a man in the eye and you know he’s got it — brains. This guy has got it. If he doesn’t, Nixon has made a bum choice.”

Thus did Nixon explain his unfortunate choice of the man who would become the only U.S. vice president in history to be forced, in order to escape certain criminal conviction and incarceration, to resign the office — Spiro T. Agnew.

In spite of the immediate celebrity, the media attention and the Secret Service protection it brings, the honor of a vice presidential nomination often turns out to be a steppingstone to political oblivion.

Think about recent VP candidates who, encouraged by the inflated poll numbers attributable in part to their elevated name recognition, tried to run in the next cycle for the White House and failed even to compete for their party’s nomination: Democrats John Edwards in 2008 and Joe Lieberman in 2004.

Earlier, the 1968 Democratic VP nominee, Sen. Edmund Muskie, had been the front-runner for the 1972 nomination and lost. The 1972 VP candidate, former U.S. Ambassador to France Sargent Shriver, ran unsuccessfully for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination.

Republican Sen. Bob Dole, the losing 1976 VP nominee, failed badly in his bid for the 1980 GOP nomination. (Although, Dole, who humorously described the VP job as “indoor work with no heavy lifting,” after another failed run for the Republican nomination in 1988, did eventually capture his party’s nod in 1996, some 20 years after his VP run.)

In fact, only one American in history has ever won the presidency after having lost the race for vice president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1920, the Democratic ticket of Ohio Gov. James M. Cox and the assistant secretary of the Navy, FDR, lost to the Republican team of Sen. Warren G. Harding of Ohio and Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge by the widest differential in any presidential election since 1820, 26.2 percent. Twelve years later, after two terms as New York governor, FDR was elected president.

Still, it can be really exciting to be the vice presidential nominee. In 1984, when President Ronald Reagan won re-election in a 49-state landslide over Democrat Walter Mondale (a former vice president), Richard Wirthlin, Reagan’s trusted pollster, told me that their campaign, which polled nightly, showed Reagan behind only one time all year.

That was when Mondale made history and got a boost by making Rep. Geraldine Ferraro the first woman on a major-party presidential ticket.

Mostly forgotten today is that after the 2008 Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., where he selected, to mostly positive reviews, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, Republican Sen. John McCain actually took the national lead over the Democratic ticket of Barack Obama and Joe Biden in polls by Gallup and CBS News.

But by Election Day, 67 percent of voters believed that Biden possessed “the personality and leadership qualities a president needs,” whereas 63 percent of voters judged that Palin did not.

Nixon knew firsthand from being one of only two Americans (along with FDR) to be nominated five times for national office that “the vice president (in a national campaign) can’t help you; he can only hurt you.” More often than not, running for VP remains a steppingstone to political oblivion.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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