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On dumping vice presidents

A new post-mortem account of the 2012 presidential campaign holds that President Obama's strategists toyed with, but rejected, the notion of dropping Vice President Joe Biden from the Democratic ticket and replacing him with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The rationale apparently was that Mr. Obama's re-election was in jeopardy and that Hillary Clinton's popularity, particularly with women voters, would boost Mr. Obama over the top. In any event, the switch never happened and the Obama-Biden ticket rode to comfortable victory over Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

Such a move would have been an act of ingratitude to Vice President Biden, who, for all his occasional verbal gaffes and outspoken manner, served President Obama as a sounding board for common sense and who was a solid voice for the middle class during their first term.

Mr. Biden has been criticized as cautiously looking out for his own political future at the same time, reserving the option to make a third try for the presidency in 2016. The notion seems far-fetched, with Hillary Clinton hovering in the wings for the next Democratic presidential nomination. But as vice president, Mr. Biden has continued to perform in the job loyally and effectively, to the point that Mr. Obama himself has called him the best vice president yet.

There's a long history of vice presidents being denied a second term, either because the man in the role chose to shed a thankless, end-of-the-road political job or because some strategist imagined that a different nominee might offer a better geographical or other balance to the ticket. Seldom, however, has the choice made a difference in the election outcome.

Perhaps the most momentous dumping of a vice president occurred in 1864 when President Abraham Lincoln surreptitiously eased Hannibal Hamlin aside in favor of War Democrat Andrew Johnson, creating a unity ticket assuring Lincoln's re-election during the Civil War. That didn't work out well, as Johnson, upon succession to the presidency, orchestrated a contentious and bitter reconstruction of the Union.

In 1944, Vice President Henry Wallace was shunted aside as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's running mate in favor of Harry Truman in what was later facetiously called "the conspiracy of the pure in heart." FDR's political advisers persuaded him to shed the suspected mystic Wallace and take Truman, promoted by a fellow Missourian, Democratic National Chairman Bob Hannegan.

Perhaps the most celebrated, and failed attempt, to dump a sitting vice president occurred in 1956. President Dwight Eisenhower urged his controversial standby, Richard Nixon, to step aside and take a cabinet position in Ike's second term, ostensibly for the good of his own political future. Nixon refused and went on to re-election as vice president, and ultimately to the presidency (and eventual resignation).

In 1972, Nixon sought to sidetrack his vice president, Spiro Agnew, from the line of presidential succession to the point of considering appointing him to the Supreme Court, hoping to replace him with his secretary of the treasury, John Connally. But Agnew wouldn't budge, and it was considered too risky to dump him and antagonize his fervent right-wing support in the Republican Party. Nixon and Agnew were easily re-elected, but each went on to resign in disgrace.

In 1992, the senior George Bush was under heavy pressure to dump Vice President Dan Quayle, his surprise choice in 1888, whose repeated gaffes as a nominee and in the second office made him a ready target. A boomlet began to replace Mr. Quayle with General Colin Powell in 1992, but General Powell said he was not interested.

In the end, the Bush strategists feared that dropping Mr. Quayle would only reflect badly on Mr. Bush's choice of him in the first place. The Bush-Quayle ticket lost handily to Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore, with Mr. Quayle not a demonstrable factor in the defeat.

Over the last four decades, vice presidents have generally become more involved in the workings of their administrations, especially the three most recent veeps — Mr. Gore, Dick Cheney and Mr. Biden. But it remains unproved that their presence on the ticket ever added or detracted much from the election outcome. Still, dumping the veep remains an enjoyable topic of speculation for political junkies.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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