Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > The Myth of Vice-Presidential Irrelevancy

Apr 29, 2020

The Myth of Vice-Presidential Irrelevancy

tags: 2020 Election,Vice Presidency

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of “Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama” (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.


As former Vice President Joe Biden ponders who should be his Vice Presidential running mate in the 2020 Presidential election, the old myth--that the Vice Presidential choice has no effect on the election that follows or how the new administration governs--has arisen yet again.

But it is a pure myth, as history tells us numerous times.

Examples of Vice Presidents mattering, in a good or detrimental manner, abound, as in the following cases:

William Henry Harrison in 1840 had John Tyler, a Democrat abandoning his party and running as a Whig, as his Vice President. Clearly, the circumstances of Harrison’s death a month into office transformed the Presidency, as Tyler claimed, rightfully, that he was President, despite not having been elected to that office (challenging Henry Clay, who claimed he had no right to that title).  This would become the norm; eight more times a Vice President would assume office knowing that there would be no serious challenge, as Tyler faced, to his legitimacy.

Abraham Lincoln chose in 1864 to drop Hannibal Hamlin, his Vice President in his first term in favor of Andrew Johnson, unknowingly affecting the course of history. Johnson turned out to be a disastrous choice, facing impeachment due to his stubborn refusal to deal with the racial violence in the South after the Civil War. Johnson, whether planned or not, undermined and weakened the Presidency for the rest of the 19th century. He also helped to create the tragedy of racial division which would stain the South for the next century, negating the purpose of Lincoln in his Emancipation Proclamation.

When William McKinley had Garret Hobart as his Vice President in his first term, the two men and their wives got along splendidly, and Hobart actually became very active in pursuing the President’s agenda in Congress.  So when Hobart died tragically in 1899 of heart disease, there was a need to find another Vice Presidential running mate for McKinley’s reelection campaign in 1900.  Theodore Roosevelt ended up, unwillingly, as the running mate, and history tells us the dramatic effect he had upon the nation when he succeeded the assassinated McKinley in September 1901. TR revived the Presidency, and set a model for many future Presidents, which might not have happened if a different person had been chosen to succeed Hobart.

Franklin D. Roosevelt might have faced tougher electoral prospects in 1932 had he not chosen the sitting Speaker of the House, John Nance Garner of Texas, as his Vice Presidential running mate.  Although Garner seems to have been insignificant in office, winning solid Southern support against Herber Hoover, the first Republican to win Southern states since Reconstruction, was a crucial factor in FDR’s electoral success.

FDR also made a fateful choice when he abandoned third term Vice President Henry A. Wallace, due to Southern discontent within the Democratic coalition in 1944. FDR's death gave the nation President Harry Truman only 82 days into Roosevelt's fourth term. Most scholars would argue that the left-leaning Wallace would have been disastrous in the Oval Office as the Cold War with the Soviet Union developed (although there are some historians who would vehemently disagree).

It is a well known fact that John F. Kennedy could not have won the Presidency in 1960 without his choice for Vice President, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson.  Being a Roman Catholic and perceived as a “liberal” from the Northeast, JFK would have been unable to win the White House without the powerful influence of LBJ over the South.

While LBJ won easily over Barry Goldwater for a full term in the White House in 1964, he was a Southern Democrat who many Northerners did not fully trust. Thus, his choice of Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, the leading liberal in Congress, as his Vice Presidential running mate, actually was crucial to his victory and the promotion of the Great Society.  Sadly, he ignored and did not utilize Humphrey properly in the next four years, but Humphrey still played a major role in promoting Johnson's domestic agenda, while being, unfortunately, captive to the President’s Vietnam policies.

When Richard Nixon, in the midst of Watergate, was forced by the 25th Amendment to choose a new Vice President after the resignation of Spiro Agnew in October 1973, his choice of House Minority Leader Gerald Ford of Michigan, was crucial.  Ford had good relations with the majority Democratic party, and there was little contention as to his nomination. And Ford proved to be the right person to follow Nixon, although it took a quarter century for most observers to look back on his time in the Presidency and recognize he was a healing force.

Jimmy Carter, with no background or experience in Washington, DC  (he had not even visited the national capital before becoming a national political figure), was smart to choose Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale, a protégé of Hubert Humphrey, as his Vice Presidential running mate in 1976.  In a close race, Mondale mattered, and proved to be a true partner and close friend of the President, and would go down in history as the most active Vice President, unofficially a “co-President”, and a model for Joe Biden later.

Ronald Reagan was smart in choosing George H. W. Bush as his Vice Presidential running mate in 1980, as Bush represented foreign policy experience and appealed to moderate Republicans alarmed by Reagan’s strong conservatism. Bush proved to be an active and engaged Vice President, whose performance helped him become the first Vice President in 152 years to be directly elected to the Presidency.

Bill Clinton, in selecting Tennessee Senator Al Gore, as his running mate in 1992, followed Carter's example of picking a Washington DC “insider” to assist him in winning, but also governing. Gore also had a direct influence on Clinton regarding environmental issues.  Being a governor of a Southern state required Clinton, as with Carter, to pick someone with solid credentials in national politics.

George W. Bush needed a person with strong foreign policy credentials and DC experience also, and therefore, his choice of Dick Cheney, who had formerly been Secretary of Defense under Bush’s father, made a lot of sense, and may have had an effect on the election results in 2000 in close races,  including in Arkansas and Tennessee, the home states of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Barack Obama needed an experienced, knowledgeable Vice Presidential choice in running for President in 2008, and found such a person in Delaware Senator Joe Biden, who had been in the Senate for 36 years, and had been chairman at different times of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  The relationship between Obama and Biden was the closest and most active since Carter and Mondale three decades earlier.

Despite the enduring myth, the Vice Presidential nominee has had a major impact on American history in so many cases, and in so many different circumstances.

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