Thursday, January 20, 2011

Joe Lieberman and the Changing Vice-Presidency

cross-posted at Dagblog

So, Joe Lieberman is leaving. Or rather, Joe Lieberman is announcing that he's going to take his ball and go home, so that there's absolutely no way to get any leverage over him for the next two years. So I expect we'll all see much more written about him on the blogs.

Lots of blogs will deal with old grudges against Lieberman or grudging praise of him, and heaven knows I have some of both. But I'm most interested in Gail Collins' column, which confirms my own suspicion that Lieberman's political behavior since 2004 has mostly been driven by his anger at not gaining the party's nomination for the Presidency:

The vice presidential race was the high point of the Joe Lieberman story, even though he allowed Dick Cheney to eviscerate him in the debate. But he left it with the idea that he should be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004. Nobody else had gotten that message.

Lieberman, a big supporter of the war in Iraq, expected the party’s base to nominate a candidate who disagreed with them about the critical issue of the day, had failed at the most crucial task delegated to him during the previous presidential election and was one of the most sluggish and cliché-ridden public speakers in the history of oratory.

He was shocked when they decided not to.

“It wasn’t a personal rejection, but I never saw anybody take anything so personally. He became so bitter about Democratic liberals,” said Bill Curry, a former Connecticut comptroller and gubernatorial candidate.

Lieberman's passive-aggressive not-quite-exit from the national life interestingly comes as Sarah Palin's unfavorability ratings hit new record highs, and the American media actually begins to reflect those poll ratings in its coverage of her. Palin's bad numbers aren't an actual story; her poll numbers have been weak since a month or two after she was nominated for vice-president, and outright hideous since July, 2009. Her "record lows" of 53% unfavorable in the recent Gallup poll and 56% unfavorable in the last CNN poll, for example, are statistically identical with her previous lows of 52% and 55%. She has pretty much the same rotten poll numbers that she's had for a long time. What's changed is that her core constituency, the press, has started to believe that she isn't a viable candidate.

The conjunction of Palin's flameout and Lieberman's decision to rust makes me wonder if something has changed in the American vice-presidency, or at least in the the institution of the vice-presidential nominee. Going back to the election of 2000, five people have run for vice-president on major party tickets. The two who have actually been sworn into office, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, have been senior statesmen types rather than potential successors. Biden may have previously run for the nomination, but seems to understand that any chance he might have once had has passed him by, and that he won't be at the top of the ticket in 2016. Cheney never seems to have coveted the Presidency itself. Meanwhile the three major-party running mates who have not taken office (Palin, Liberman, and John Edwards) have all campaigned poorly for the understudy job but come away expecting a shot at being president themselves. It's very peculiar.

That's a laughably small sample, and probably I shouldn't draw any conclusions, but it's interesting that we're seeing this happen as the Vice-Presidency has grown stronger during Gore's and then Cheney's terms, and after the last vice-president to gain his party's nomination for president failed to gain office in such a difficult way. Al Gore expanded the day-to-day policy muscle of the Vice-Presidency (accelerating a development that had started and stuttered in previous administrations) and was a strong addition to Clinton's ticket but had the Presidency slip through his hands and was ruthlessly second-guessed on campaign strategy afterward. Cheney consolidated even more power in the Vice-Presidency (although he seems to have lost some in his second term), but was clearly not interested in anything beyond Air Force Two.

It seems (although this might be reversed in a political eyeblink) that the "vice-president" role is gaining ascendance over the "running mate" role which had been much more dominant for many years. The last vice-presidents have been essentially Cabinet heavyweights without portfolio. There's less emphasis on the Veep's campaign-trail functions, and much much less emphasis on the Vice-President as political heir apparent. In fact, it's been ten years of veeps who are not heir apparents at all. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the last "heir apparent" nominee lost the big prize in the Florida mudfight, and the successful heir apparent before that, George H. W. Bush, lost re-election and was unpopular with his party's base. When you flesh out that list of late-twentieth-century Veeps with Walter Mondale (who lost 49 states to Reagan) and Dan Quayle (a liability who could never be nominated for president), you can see why parties might move away from the anointed-successor model.

What's strange though is that the last three running mates who've lost seem so convinced that they would do better heading the ticket next time. What's even stranger is their evident conviction that they deserve the gig, even though they all fumbled the backup job.

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