Last August, I wrote a somewhat controversial piece at Salon that laid out a number of reasons why Democrats should favor a primary challenge by Hillary Clinton against President Obama. Last week, Democratic pollsters Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell, coming late to the party, revisited the points I made in their Wall St. Journal op-ed piece titled “The Hillary Moment” . Rather than a primary challenge, however, they suggested that for the good of the Democratic Party, Obama ought to emulate Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson and bow out of the presidential race, ceding the nomination to Clinton. After making many of the same points as I did regarding why Clinton was the stronger candidate, they conclude that, “But this is about more than electoral politics. Not only is Mrs. Clinton better positioned to win in 2012 than Mr. Obama, but she is better positioned to govern if she does. Given her strong public support, she has the ability to step above partisan politics, reach out to Republicans, change the dialogue, and break the gridlock in Washington. “
Not surprisingly, public reaction to their piece mirrored the reaction to mine, with Democrats about equally split between supporting the President or backing Hillary. In the end, of course, the point is moot, since Clinton has repeatedly denied any interest in challenging Obama, and there is no evidence that Obama is going to reprise Johnson’s surprise announcement from March, 1968 that he was not going to seek his party’s nomination. Of course, no one anticipated Johnson’s decision either, but I would be completely shocked if Obama took himself out of the race. One big difference between Truman and Johnson, and Obama, of course, is that the former two both won reelection after becoming president upon their predecessors’ deaths. Obama’s political circumstances are slightly different – by 2012 he will have only served four years in office.
The Schoen/Caddell editorial did have one new consequence: it refocused media attention on the long-simmering rumor that Obama is contemplating replacing Joe Biden on the ticket with Hillary. Yesterday, in the latest version of this rumor, former governor Pete Du Pont made the case for why Obama should dump Biden. Du Pont acknowledged that given the current political climate Obama faces an uphill reelection fight. He notes, however, that Obama is unlikely to voluntarily relinquish his place on the ticket. DuPont’s conclusion? “[I]t seems possible that the Democrat Party will pre-emptively decide that the time has come for some fresh thinking about its ticket…” Rather than step down, however, Obama “might … decide to switch to a vice presidential candidate who will be stronger, better, and change the thinking of a majority of the Democrats–namely, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”
This is not the first time we have heard rumors of a Clinton-for-Biden switch, and barring a significant economic upturn, it won’t be the last. But is it a good idea for Obama? Let’s look at the historical record. Since FDR’s presidency there have been only a few occasions when the incumbent president has contemplated dumping his vice president but only three occasions when it actually occurred. Two took place during Roosevelt’s presidency. Roosevelt’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, served eight years as VP before actually stepping down to run against FDR for the Democratic nomination in 1940. Garner did so in part to protest Roosevelt’s breaking the two-term pledge, and in reaction to FDR’s failed court-packing plan and unsuccessful effort to purge conservative Democrats from the party during the 1938 midterm elections. Garner’s bid failed, of course, and his vice presidential replacement, Henry Wallace, lasted one term before he too was booted off the ticket in 1944, an action engineered by party leaders who viewed his foreign policy views as dangerously out of step with the party’s principles, but which appeared to have FDR’s tacit support. His replacement, of course, was Harry Truman, who became President on FDR’s death in April, 1945.
It would be more than three decades before another President reprised FDR’s strategy but for different political motivations. In 1976, Gerald Ford, facing a tough election fight under adverse economic conditions, accepted Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s offer to leave the ticket, and eventually replaced him with the more conservative Bob Dole. Ford did so in light of dissatisfaction among the conservative wing of the Republican Party with Rockefeller and facing a likely primary challenge from Ronald Reagan. Ford went on to lose a close election to Jimmy Carter. Looking back, Ford wondered whether he might have won several key states – New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania – and thus the race with Rockefeller on the ticket. Interestingly, there is strong evidence that Reagan was willing to take the VP position, but Ford apparently was not aware of this and never offered it. In later years Ford expressed regret with his decision to dump Rockefeller.
On at least one other occasion, an incumbent president facing a difficult reelection fight considered jettisoning his vice president – but did not do so. In 1992, George H. W. Bush was in a tough race against Bill Clinton, and there was active discussion regarding whether to replace Vice President Dan Quayle on the ticket. In an oral history, James Baker – who ran Bush’s presidential campaigns – alluded to Ford’s decision as one reason why Bush decided to keep Quayle on the ticket. Baker was asked whether Bush regretted choosing Quayle as Vice President in the first place. He replied: “Maybe later. Maybe later, because the coverage was so uniformly negative for the four years that I think he would’ve been pleased perhaps even to see Dan volunteer to step down in ’92, but that wasn’t to be. And he certainly couldn’t take the ax to him because the press would say,
Hey, you dummy, the problem is not the Vice President. It’s you. That’s why you’re running low in the polls. So he couldn’t do that. In fact I think [Gerald] Ford made a mistake when he let [Nelson] Rockefeller go. And if it had been Ford and Rockefeller, I think they would’ve won that election in ’76, instead of Ford and Dole.” So Bush stuck with Quayle – and lost anyway, in large part because Ross Perot’s third party candidacy siphoned votes from Bush.
Despite the negative outcome, Baker’s reasoning still seems to me to be applicable to Obama’s predicament today. He can’t fire Biden without signaling that he knows his reelection is in doubt. And it would be even more difficult to replace Biden with Clinton for the simple reason that half of the likely Democratic voters are going to want the ticket reversed, with Clinton on the top. Now, if Biden “volunteers” to step down, as Rockefeller did, that may ease Obama’s problem superficially, although even then there will be the inevitable whispering campaign that Biden was asked to resign. And I doubt Joe, who undoubtedly has his own eye on the presidency, wants to endure the public humiliation and long-term political repercussions from being forced from the ticket after one term.
There’s a final reason why I think the Clinton-for-VP proposal is a bad idea: it does nothing for her. She’s played the loyal soldier admirably for three years now, largely staying above the political fray and garnering strong approval ratings in the process. Why jeopardize her political rehabilitation for second billing on the Democratic ticket? If she’s going to get down into the political mud to save the party and risk tarnishing her reputation, it makes far more sense to do so for the ultimate prize: the presidency, rather than taking a backseat to Obama for four more years.
But then, you’ve heard that argument before. Ultimately, Obama has to decide if the electoral gains from having Clinton rather than Biden on the ticket outweigh the certain cost of publicly acknowledging that without change he’s in significant danger of losing the race. Even if he concludes that the trade is worth making, he still must convince Clinton that it’s in her interest as well. Looking at both calculations, my guess is that Obama will stay with Biden.