By Tom Anderson
At the time of this article’s writing, amid a pandemic-hit campaign season like no other, former Vice-President and U.S. Senator Joe Biden has won the Democratic Party’s nomination to be their candidate for President at the election in November 2020. Speculation has already begun on whom Biden may select to be his running mate, the man or woman who will take on the role of vice-president if he proves victorious in the electoral college. Even before the coronavirus outbreak changed 2020 beyond all recognition and made sudden deaths all the more likely, Biden’s age (77) had made this decision carry more weight than in most elections.
This is not to single out Biden, either; his left-wing primary rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders, is 78, while the incumbent Republican president whom he wishes to defeat, Donald Trump, is 74. It seems that American politics has become an old man’s game—and old woman’s, as illustrated by the fact that Nancy Pelosi (aged 80) has led the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives for longer than 2020’s youngest voters have been alive. This is in part because of the tendency, due to seniority rules, pork spending and other factors, for an incumbent US Congressional politician to often be very difficult to remove from office once they have entrenched themselves. Ironically, Biden himself shot to fame in 1972 by his shock defeat of one such elderly entrenched incumbent, Senator J. Caleb Boggs of Delaware, in a campaign that emphasised Biden’s youth and awareness of the problems facing younger voters, rather than being old and out of touch. The revolution devours its children, and today Biden has become the ancient establishment figure whom America’s Democratic youth fear do not represent their interests.
The situation in 2020 therefore represents an unusual, though not unprecedented, set of political circumstances. Many American politicians and historians have noted the peculiar paradox that the office of the Vice-President of the United States (VPOTUS or ‘veep’ for short) represents. Most of the time, the vice-president’s role on paper is vague and rather minor; Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first vice-president, southerner John Nance Garner, infamously described the role as ‘not worth a bucket of warm piss’ (sometimes bowdlerised to ‘spit’). A fairly common trope in American political alternate history is the idea of a victorious primary candidate choosing their defeated rival as veep candidate in order to reunite the party after a fractious primary. However, in reality this happens rather seldom, mostly because any bitter defeated rival is likely to regard the veepship as an insulting symbolic sop. A rival is more likely to be promised a cabinet office (such as Secretary of State, i.e. foreign minister) or some other role in government in which they can exercise real power. This is not to say that all vice-presidents have lacked influence on policy, but they have typically gained it through informal agreements with their president that are specific to a particular administration.
The aforementioned paradox comes in because this seemingly disappointingly minor role suddenly becomes the most important one in the world if the President is killed, indisposed, or leaves office by other means (such as resignation or impeachment). Whereas millions of Americans select their party’s presidential candidate through primaries, the choice of just one, that candidate themselves, determines who will occupy the presidency as their successor under such circumstances. (In practice, of course, advisors and party machinery will also have influence on the choice, and in the past the formal convention vote was a more significant hurdle). 2020 is unusual because Biden’s age and the pandemic means that this scenario is closer to the forefront of voters’ minds than under usual circumstances.
In an election where few are speculating about the idea of the president leaving office midterm (in a box or otherwise), a candidate may believe they can afford to be flashy and daring. In 1984, the relatively youthful Walter Mondale could select Geraldine Ferraro as the US’s first major party female vice-presidential candidate. In 1928, Herbert Hoover, running as a Republican in an era of total domination by that party, chose a former critic, Charles Curtis, who was also the first vice-president of significant Native American ancestry and culture. When running for re-election in 1900, William McKinley picked Theodore Roosevelt as his new veep, despite the latter’s slim experience in high-profile elected office, in part because he had become a popular figure and war hero of the Spanish-American War. This came despite the fact that Roosevelt initially publicly refused the office in view of its aforementioned lack of power and influence.
Or, more often, a candidate might seek to ‘balance the ticket’ by choosing a political figure from a different geographic region of the country, or a different ideological tendency within the party. Whether the candidate goes for an exciting novelty to enliven the electorate over a ‘boring safe pair of hands’ is often influenced by how much the American public’s mind is on the possibility of succession. To take one relatively recent example, in 2008 Senator John McCain won the Republican nomination, only to badly misjudge the public mood in his choice of vice-president. Democratic rival Barack Obama was well ahead in the polls after his shock primary defeat of Hillary Clinton, and was on course to become the nation’s first black president. After being dissuaded from picking his friend and former Democrat Joe Lieberman, McCain sought a ‘game changer’ to exploit those voters who were disappointed that the historic ‘first’ would not be that of the first female president instead.
He chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin based on (as was later to be infamous) rather little research and vetting. The American public weighed Palin in the balance and found her wanting, and found the idea of her in the White House to be all too easy to picture given McCain’s age and health issues. Obama won in a landslide, having chosen Joe Biden as a safe pair of hands from the establishment wing of the Democrats, reassuring those who muttered of Obama himself being a dangerous and radical outsider (which was, of course, often a euphemism for viewing his race negatively). Ironically enough, McCain did live until 2018, meaning he would have completed two terms as president if he had won in 2008—assuming his life was not shortened by the demands of the office, of course. McCain’s failure to recognise his own mortality in 2008 was in contrast to the Democratic convention of 1944, in which the party (knowing Franklin D. Roosevelt would likely die part way through his fourth term) forced a change in veep from the controversial Henry Wallace to Harry S Truman as a safer pair of hands.
Unlike McCain, Obama was young and healthy, but America’s tragic history of race relations and the past assassinations of other high-profile figures meant that the idea of Obama being shot by a white supremacist was a frequently-discussed scenario in 2008 and 2009. While Obama thankfully completed two terms without incident, this may have helped solidify the notion of Biden as President in the minds of the American public beyond the political classes. Despite his age, there was some speculation Biden might run in 2016, which would make him one of a number of incumbent vice-presidents to try to make the leap to the presidency—for example, George HW Bush was successful at this in 1988, while Richard Nixon in 1960 and Al Gore in 2000 were both unsuccessful. Biden, sadly already no stranger to family tragedy, chose not to run following the death of his son. This left the field open for Hillary Clinton, who won the nomination after what was then regarded as a surprisingly hotly-fought contest with Bernie Sanders, and ultimately lost in the electoral college to Donald Trump.
It is undoubtedly his high-profile role as Obama’s veep which means that Biden, despite now obviously being four years older than in 2016, has become the standard-bearer for the establishment of the Democratic Party in the face of a more left-wing tendency from Sanders and his supporters. All of this would have seemed very unlikely back in 1988, when Biden’s first attempt at the presidency ended in an ignominious and bizarre scandal that saw him plagiarise the speeches of British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. Biden had run abortively for president again in 2008, but his very lack of success probably encouraged Obama to select him as veep as a suitably neutered symbolic man from another age: it is strange how things work out! Obama’s stated reasons for choosing Biden were his appeal to blue-collar voters and, with Obama being a Washington outsider, Biden’s connections on Capitol Hill and in foreign policy. Given rumours that Obama had got as far as printing bumper stickers with the name of Evan Bayh (a younger Indiana Senator who ultimately chose to retire from politics unexpectedly in 2010), one wonders if Biden’s age also played a role in perceptibly ‘steadying’ the ticket.
This is therefore one way in which the impact of an American politician upon history can be altered by the seemingly powerless office of the vice-president: Joe Biden went from a man with an illustrious Senate career, but no credibility in presidential runs, to the obvious default frontrunner of 2020—a primary season in which he has emerged victorious, despite seeming on course for irrelevance after all before the crucial South Carolina primary. I own a compilation of Peanuts strips from the 1990s (but published in the 2000s) with an introduction explaining that younger readers might find some references dated, such as a mention of Joe Biden. How history can change! It is probably fair to say that increasing life expectancy and better healthcare means this type of scenario is more feasible now than it has been in the past, though there are past examples of figures from presidential politics who have lived for many years afterwards—such as Herbert Hoover, who continued to commentate on politics for more than 30 years after losing re-election in 1932.
The odd paradox of the vice-president’s role can be partly explained by the rather haphazard way in which it was created back at the US Constitutional Convention in 1787. The origins of the vice-presidency lay in a resolution by the delightfully named committee on ‘Leftover Business’, stating that the Senate would choose its own president (as in presiding officer). Indeed, to this day the US Vice-President formally presides over the Senate, though this is no longer as prominent a part of the role as it was; he cannot vote, but can vote to break ties, much like the Speaker of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom. Despite the Leftover Business committee’s inauspicious name, it also later decided on the rather important point that the USA’s chief executive (i.e. the president) should be elected by an electoral college. At this point any kind of popular vote by the people to choose those electors was not specified, and indeed this would not be the preferred method in most states until the 1830s; for many years, many states simply had their state legislature choose electors to pick the president. At the time, the US was a looser federation of states in whom most citizens identified more with their home state than the Union, and the Leftover Business committee members were concerned that the electors of the electoral college might all vote for ‘favourite son’ candidates from their own state. The committee created the idea of each elector having to vote for two candidates, at least one of whom must be from outside the elector’s home state. The highest-placed candidate, whom the committee hoped would be the one elected on the out-of-state vote as a figure with national appeal, would be the president, while the runner-up would be the vice-president. This was written into Article II of the US Constitution.
After the retirement of national rallying figure George Washington after two terms as president, it was clear this system proved utterly hopeless in the face of political factionalism. Having been optimistically designed by men who (like Washington) hoped that the formal political parties of Britain could be avoided, the system broke down when the bitterly-fought 1796 election saw Federalist John Adams become president and his Democratic-Republican opponent Thomas Jefferson become vice-president. The 1800 result at least did not split by party, but was still fraught, with Jefferson becoming president and fellow Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr becoming vice-president by a margin of just one vote of the electoral college. With all this in mind, the Twelfth Amendment was pushed through for the 1804 election, changing the setup so now the electors would now cast one vote for president and one separate vote for vice-president. This led to the parties nominating a presidential candidate and his ‘running mate’, a vice-presidential candidate, as a ‘ticket’ of two. It is worth remembering that such radical changes were not uncommon to be discussed in the early days of the American republic. Jefferson was an enthusiast for the idea of a new constitution every 25 years, and would probably find modern American politics’ slavish adherence to legalistically finding new interpretations of the Founding Fathers’ words as though they were Holy Writ, to be either laughable or horrifying.
One interesting consequence of these early rules is that the electors of a state in the electoral college are technically not allowed to cast their votes for both a president and a vice-president from that state. Despite being based in the concerns about favourite sons and state loyalty over national loyalty in the 1780s which now seem outdated, this rule is still in place. It means that a party cannot nominate both a presidential and a vice-presidential candidate from the same state—unless it is very, very confident it will win a landslide and not have to worry about the veep receiving their home state’s electoral votes, that is! In 2000 the Texan George W. Bush’s vice-presidential candidate, Dick Cheney, changed his own official party registration from Texas back to Wyoming in order to avoid this issue. This rule is frequently forgotten in alternate history speculation about American politics, so remember you can’t have two New Yorkers or two Ohioans or whatever on the same ticket!
The most obvious way in which the vice-presidency can change things, of course, is when the president does leave the White House unexpectedly one way or another. It is seldom that we have cases like FDR in 1944 or McCain in 2008 where this is regarded as a likely outcome, and so happenstance can lead to a man or woman in the White House whom no-one had seriously pictured in the role beforehand. Nine presidents have left the White House prematurely; four were assassinated, four died of natural causes and one resigned (Richard Nixon following the Watergate scandal). The first two presidents to die in office were both elected from the Whig Party, who opposed the Democrats in the 1830s-50s period. William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, both war-hero generals, died early in their first term and left the presidency to vice-presidents who were regarded as inadequate. John Tyler, Harrison’s veep, was the one who codified the idea that a succeeding vice-president takes on the full role of the presidency for the remainder of the term and not merely acting as a caretaker till a special election can be held—despite the fact that he turned out to oppose much of the Whig Party’s programme and was expelled from it. Millard Fillmore, Taylor’s VP, has achieved the reputation of being America’s most boring president, for better or for worse. It is perhaps no surprise that after these two cases, the Whig Party broke apart and these were the only presidents elected on that ticket.
The first US President to be assassinated was, of course, Republican Abraham Lincoln, shot by John Wilkes Booth while watching a play at the moment of triumph in the Civil War. Once again, the peril of a veep choice was proved by tragedy. Lincoln had run for re-election mid-war on a ‘National Union’ ticket, replacing fiery Radical Republican Hannibal Hamlin (his previous veep) with southern unionist Andrew Johnson for a national unity message. Once in office, Johnson’s lack of ideological commonality with the Republicans in Congress and indifference or hostility to the freed slaves in the South led to his attempted impeachment. He is now regarded as one of the worst presidents in American history, and all because one office has to serve the functions of being both a symbolic ticket-balancer and an actual replacement president.
Of the remaining presidents to leave office prematurely, working backwards through time: Richard Nixon (eventually) resigned after Watergate in 1974, but his VP Spiro Agnew had already resigned for another scandal, so the presidency went to newly-appointed VP and former House Minority Leader Gerald Ford; John F. Kennedy was infamously assassinated in 1963 and succeeded by Lyndon B. Johnson, the architect of the Great Society but controversial for his escalation of the Vietnam War; FDR in 1945 has already been covered, putting Harry S Truman in the White House at the crucial moment of Cold War destiny but as a conscious choice of the Democrats rather than an accidental choice; Warren G. Harding died in 1923 conveniently before he could become embroiled in the Teapot Dome scandal, and was succeeded by Calvin Coolidge; William McKinley was shot in 1901 and succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt; and James A. Garfield was shot in 1881 and succeeded by Chester A. Arthur.
Note the recurring dark fates for presidents elected in years ending in ‘0’ (1860 for Lincoln, 1880 for Garfield, 1900 for McKinley, 1920 for Harding, 1960 for Kennedy, etc.) This is popularly known as the ‘Curse of Tippecanoe’, and Alex Richards writes about a more extreme version of it in the SLP book Tippecanoe and Wallace Too. Note that the current year also ends in a 0, if anyone had any more reason to put weight on Joe Biden’s choice of vice-president...
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth