Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sarah Palin - Inherently Flailin'?

I know that this is a cheesy title for a blog post, but the alternative was Failed Vice Presidential Candidates and Their Prospects for Success in Obtaining Their Politcal Party's Nomination in the Subsequent Presidential Election Cycle. Needless to say, that was a bit verbose, so I decided to go with something catchy. While Sarah Palin - Inherently Flailin'? may not be a good title, it obviously caught your attention, since you are reading this article now. In the words of our last president, mission accomplished.

Now on to the actual subject of this article. As is well known to all but the politically dense, Alaska Governor and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is gearing up for a presidential run in 2012. Due to the unprecedentedness of her status as first woman to ever be nominated by the Republican party for vice president, the zeal she inspires among the far right-wingers who comprise such a crucial element of the Republican party base, and the fact that her plethora of quirky personal and biographical attributes makes for excellent media fodder (viz. her strange accent, moosehunting habits, various government ethics scandals, pregnant daughter, repeated signs of severe intellectual limitations, etc), she is receiving more attention than any other individual seeking (or potentially seeking) the Republican presidential nomination three years hence. Indeed, many in the vast world of cyberspace are already assuming that she's a shoo-in for the nomination. But is this argument validated by American political history?

The answer to that question is a decisive no. While in recent history former vice presidents who choose to seek the presidential nominations of their party have had an excellent track record of obtaining it (though winning the general election is another story), failed vice presidential candidates are not nearly as fortunate. To better illustrate this point, let us study the history of unsuccessful vice presidential candidates who have sought the presidential nomination of their parties after their failed bids for the next-to-top spot (this list excludes individuals who failed in a bid for re-election as vice president, since by that time they had already earned the distinction of having actually served in the office itself):
- Thomas A. Hendricks (Democrat) was Samuel Tilden's vice presidential running mate in 1876, and sought the presidential nomination in 1884. He failed to receive it, although he was chosen to again run for vice president that year (this time alongside Grover Cleveland) and was elected to that office, although he died before serving his first year.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democrat) was James Cox's vice presidential running mate in 1920, and sought the presidential nomination in 1932. He was successful in receiving it, won the general election, and was re-elected three times.
- Earl Warren (Republican) was Thomas Dewey's vice presidential running mate in 1948, and sought the presidential nomination in 1952. He failed to receive it.
- Henry Cabot Lodge (Republican) was Richard Nixon's vice presidential running mate in 1960, and sought the presidential nomination in 1964. He failed to receive it.
- Edmund Muskie (Democrat) was Hubert Humphrey's vice presidential running mate in 1968, and sought the presidential nomination in 1972. He failed to receive it.
- Sargent Shriver (Democrat) was George McGovern's vice presidential running mate in 1972, and sought the presidential nomination in 1976. He failed to receive it.
- Robert Dole (Republican) was Gerald Ford's vice presidential running mate in 1976, and sought the presidential nomination in 1996. He was successful in receiving it, although he did not win the general election.
- Joseph Lieberman (Democrat) was Albert Gore's vice presidential running mate in 2000, and sought the presidential nomination in 2004. He failed to receive it.
- John Edwards (Democrat) was John Kerry's vice presidential running mate in 2004, and sought the presidential nomination in 2008. He failed to receive it.

There are several noteworthy facts to be gleaned from this list:
- The Twelfth Amendment, which requires vice presidents to run for that office speficially alongside their presidential candidate, became law in 1804. Yet for the first eighty years after this was so, not a single failed vice presidential candidate ever made the effort to run for president in his own right, and in the subsequent one-hundred-and-twenty-four years, only nine failed vice presidential candidates ever sought a presidential nomination.
- Of those nine, six of them sought the presidential nomination in the election immediately after the one in which they had just been defeated for vice president (Warren, Lodge, Muskie, Shriver, Lieberman, and Edwards). None of them were successful.
- Of the remaining three (Hendricks, Roosevelt, and Dole), two were successful in obtaining their party's presidential nomination (Roosevelt and Dole). While only Roosevelt went on to then win in the general election, for the purposes of this article (which focuses only on winning party nominations, and not general elections), we have to consider both Roosevelt and Dole to be the "winners" in this process. Incidentally, Hendricks waited eight years after his vice presidential defeat before running for president, Roosevelt twelve, and Dole twenty.

What does all of this mean? More than anything else, it means that the same qualities that make one a desirable vice presidential candidate do not necessarily translate into the political attributes that allows one to later receive a presidential nomination. Lodge, Muskie, Lieberman, and Edwards were all chosen because their political images complimented those of the candidates at the top of their tickets in just such a way as to give them an air of "freshness", and each suffered from the fact that after four years' constant exposure to the political light (which is what happens when one chooses to run for president so shortly after a failed vice presidential attempt), that same freshness had grown politically stale. Hendricks and Warren were both chosen because it was assumed that they could help swing their electorally valuable home states to the party's candidate, and each failed in their own presidential bids precisely because they could not expand their following beyond them. Sargent Shriver was actually George McGovern's second vice presidential running mate; the first, Thomas Eagleton, had to withdraw from the ticket due to concerns about his mental health, and Shriver was frantically chosen as a replacement because he was politically safe, meaning that there was nothing especially desirable about him in the first place.

What distinguishes Roosevelt and Dole from this lot is the fact that at least one full decade separates both of them from their vice presidential candidacies. This meant that each was able to slough off the political identity that had gotten them picked for the second spot and establish a brand new one befre seeking the top position. In the case of Franklin Roosevelt, he was primarily chosen because of name recognition (his cousin Theodore had been a popular progressive president twelve years earlier), youth, and foreign policy experience (he had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson during World War One). All of this made him a great choice for James Cox (who was nevertheless soundly defeated by Warren Harding), but would have rendered him a poor presidential candidate in his own right had he sought the main nomination in the presidential elections of 1924 or 1928. By the time Roosevelt pursued the nomination in 1932, however, he had served two accomplished terms as Governor of New York, which gave him a whole new image from the one he'd had twelve years earlier.

Similarly, Robert "Bob" Dole was chosen by Gerald Ford in 1976 as a sop to the hard-line right-wingers in the party, who had tried to nominate California Governor Ronald Reagan in lieu of Gerald Ford and had been narrowly defeated in the primaries. Known for his sharp tongue as well as his strong affiliation with the party's most conservative wing, Dole's "attack dog" image prevented him from winning the party's nomination when he sought it in the following presidential election (1980) or eight years after that (1988). It wasn't until 1996, when familiarity and extensive Senate experience considerably softened his image, that Dole became a more publicly palatable figure, making his nomination more appealing to a party that needed someone who could slash President Clinton to ribbons while seeming "likable". 

What Sarah Palin must ask herself is whether the same qualities that made her a viable running mate to John McCain in 2008 will make her presidential timber in 2012. While her current lead in the polls may suggest that this is indeed the case, it should be remembered in mind that Lodge, Muskie, and Edwards all entered their party's primaries with strong poll numbers before being subsequently defeated (and each one by sound margins). Indeed, the political attributes that caused McCain to pick Palin (youth, attractiveness, the breaking of a barrier because she is a woman, extreme conservatism, her reputation as a reformer) offer no guarantees for her future. So what is my analysis of her prospects?

On the plus side, being a woman will help her quite a bit, as the Republicans have never had fielded a female candidate with a real shot at being nominated (Margaret Chase Smith and Elizabeth Dole do not qualify as such), and may salivate at the prospect of matching the Democrats' own barrier busting nominee from 2008 with one of their own. Palin's extreme conservatism will likewise prove a boon to her, as presidential primaries in both parties generally consist of grassroots ideological purists, and Palin's beliefs are perfectly tailored to appeal to the hard right-wing base of the GOP. That said, her youth and physical attractiveness will only go so far. Their main political value lies in drawing attention to one's self, and as Palin has already received all the spotlight she needs, they will doubtless do her any more good. Her reputation as a reformer may indirectly prove to be her undoing - as increased media scrutiny reveals not only the lie behind this image, but a whole slew of ethics scandals that directly contradict it, her claim of electability will be severely hampered. Finally, there is the manner in which the 2008 campaign caused many to question whether she was qualified for higher office, due not only to her lack of political experience (far less than that of Barack Obama at the time) but also to suspicions that she lacked intellectual substance.

The end result of all this is a situation in which a Palin nomination seems highly unlikely. She is an attractive candidate for the media now thanks to her image and high name recognition, and these factors likewise make her a popular spokeswoman for the conservative movement. When push comes to shove, however, the conservative base of the Republican party wants a candidate who they can at least pretend has a chance of winning. This generally requires them to select a more moderate alternative, suggesting that Mitt Romney has the best shot four years from now (his extensive business experience will also help him at that time should the economy remain in its current state). Yet even if Republicans do choose to run with an ideological die-hard on Palin's level, they still have a more politically viable option in former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. He has essentially the same views as Sarah Palin, but can match them with a charming personality, a hit TV show on FoxNews that grants him constant media exposure, and a political shrewdness that has thus far been lacking in Palin herself. In short, not only do I see little reason to believe that Palin will avoid the fate of Hendricks, Warren, Lodge, Muskie, Shriver, Lieberman, and Edwards, but I strongly suspect that the very movement which currently champions her will ultimately grant the nomination to Huckabee.

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