I very much liked the HBO movie “Game Change” and its examination of Sarah Palin’s role in the 2008 presidential campaign. Featuring strong performances by Julianne Moore as Palin, Ed Harris as John McCain, and Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt, McCain’s campaign manager, it is one of the best political movies of recent years. Furthermore, the film’s depiction of Palin’s ill-fated vice-presidential campaign reveals how the importance of the second-in-command position has risen over the years. Once little more than an afterthought, the vice presidency has become exceptionally important in American presidential campaigns and governance.
In the not too-distant past, the V.P. was almost irrelevant, except for its role in the constitutional succession process. John Adams, the first man to hold the position, called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Presidents often kept their vice president in the dark about vital issues, as Harry Truman did not even know about the Manhattan Project when FDR died in 1945. In 1956, Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson allowed the convention delegates to choose his running mate, with Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver edging out a young John F. Kennedy. Four years later, JFK picked Lyndon Johnson to help him win in the South, where he was going to struggle because of his Catholicism. Though LBJ proved critical in carrying Texas, the last time a V.P. pick put a state in the president’s column, he played little role in the Kennedy Administration. Johnson returned the favor by treating his V.P., Senator Hubert Humphrey, in much the same fashion.
In 1972, when the vetting process for selection was more lax, Democratic nominee George McGovern picked Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri as his running mate. The media discovered that Eagleton had undergone treatment for mental illness and received electroshock therapy, causing a firestorm. Though Eagleton neglected to disclose his medical history to the campaign, McGovern initially stood by his choice, but eventually relented because of the controversy. McGovern would likely have lost to Richard Nixon anyway, but the fumbled V.P. choice sealed his fate. As a result, vice-presidential selections would face greater vetting in the future (or at least that’s how the story goes).
During the Carter years, the role of vice president changed significantly. Running as a Southern governor critical of traditional Washington ways, Jimmy Carter brought in Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota to bring some insider experience. Though Carter fumbled in his dealings with Congress, Mondale became the first V.P. to have a White House office and had far greater responsibilities than his mentor Humphrey had when he served LBJ. Mondale’s tenure, which also included weekly lunches with the president, set an important precedent for future vice presidents.
In 1988, George H. W. Bush chose his running mate, Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana, for the traditional reasons a candidate picked a vice president. Bush, a moderate Republican from the World War II generation, chose Quayle, a conservative Republican from the baby boom generation, to provide ideological and age balance to the ticket. This calculus backfired when Quayle appeared too youthful and inexperienced during the campaign and was a liability throughout the Bush administration. It was probably too much, too soon for Quayle, who might have had a respectable career if he hadn’t faced the national spotlight before he was prepared.
With Quayle’s selection still the subject of criticism in 1992, Bill Clinton set a new standard when he chose Al Gore as his partner. Rather than looking to balance the ticket, Clinton chose another candidate like himself, a Southern moderate baby boomer. Redefining a Democratic Party still struggling with its liberal reputation, this break with conventional wisdom proved brilliant, as the Clinton/Gore campaign left their convention with energy and momentum and never looked back.
Once in office, Gore played a considerable role in the administration. Not merely an adviser, Gore carried out specific portfolios in areas of his expertise, such as Russia, space and technology, the environment, and reinventing government. The days of the irrelevant vice presidency seemed far behind.
In light of this model, candidates began to pick V.P.’s as much for their role in governance as for their political benefits. Choices like Dick Cheney (Wyoming) and Joe Lieberman (Connecticut) came from states that Bush and Gore expected in win easily. To avoid a Quayle-like disaster, candidates also picked individuals who had already been through national campaigns (Gore, Jack Kemp, John Edwards, Joe Biden) or were established Washington fixtures (Cheney, Lieberman). Controversies over the qualifications of vice presidential selections appeared to be a thing of the past.
While the selection process went much smoother, vice presidents certainly did not escape controversy. Playing a greater role than any previous occupant of the office, Dick Cheney became the most powerful and divisive V.P. in American history. Many Americans believed that Cheney was the true leader in the Bush Administration, instrumental in the decision to go to war in Iraq.
Given the considerable roles played by Gore and Cheney, respectively, the events of “Game Change” seem quite perplexing. Perhaps because of the fading memory of the Quayle selection, “Game Change” portrays a scattershot vetting process of Palin that only took five days and led to the pick of an unqualified candidate. Desperate to win the election against long odds, McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt (Harrelson) and others believed a dramatic step was necessary to defeat Obama. The results, as the movie shows, were simply disastrous. Palin lacked the knowledge and temperament to conduct a national campaign and while she energized the GOP base, the Alaska governor hurt them dramatically with the swing voters necessary to win the election. Though McCain, like McGovern in 1972, would likely have lost anyway because of Bush’s unpopularity and the collapsing economy, Palin ended any chance for the GOP nominee.
Just as the two decades following Dan Quayle’s selection led to greater conservatism in the vice presidential selection process, “Game Change” and the Palin pick will likely have the same impact. Assuming Mitt Romney is the GOP nominee, I doubt he will pick a rising but unproven star like Florida Senator Marco Rubio or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The risk is simply too great.