The Fourth of July offers Americans the perfect opportunity for nostalgia, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the New York Post’s version of political deva vu. Their headline yesterday, “Obama to ask Cuomo to be 2012 running mate: sources,” took me back to the 2004 election and speculation that George W. Bush would dump his lightning-rod VP in favor of Condoleezza Rice, both to boost his popularity and to provide the GOP with a viable presidential candidate in 2008. As it turns out, the headline oversold the story:
A Prominent Republican is joining a prominent Democrat in predicting that Gov. Cuomo will become President Obama’s running mate for vice president next year.
The Post’s Fredric Dicker got two political insiders to predict that Barack Obama would dump Joe Biden, while the headline definitely conveyed the notion that actual insiders to the White House had told Dicker that the decision had already been made. In other words, just as in 2004, we have people playing Fantasy Politics rather than reporting actual decisions.
Yeah, it’s beginning to feel like 2004 again.
In my column for The Week, I note a few similar circumstances facing the two incumbent Presidents regarding their running mates, and then explain why a switch won’t work. For one thing, changing VPs midstream is a tacit admission of fault in picking the first time, which carries its own significant political risks. The last President to make such a switch was FDR, and Henry Wallace forced his hand by becoming enamored of the Bolshevik revolution to such a degree that he began publicly feuding with members of his own party over policy. But getting a newer, younger model doesn’t do much for a party’s electoral prospects anyway, as history shows:
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 #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 Phil Bredesen of Tennessee.
In the end, people vote for the person at the top of the ticket, not the bottom. That’s bad news for Obama and Biden.