Why the Running Mate Will Really Matter This Time

It seems much more important to get the details on men behaving badly if you are: A. a Democrat B. Weathly. Being a Republican, say Trump, should apparently, just be overlooked

as Trump being Trump. Not that there is any excuse for sexual harassment or unhealthy workplace behavior. It’s just that if the Democrats hold their aides to higher standards it will increase the chances of reelection of Trump. But perhaps ethical purity is most important. It is a really complex problem reflecting fast changing/improving social standards. It may boil down in this One Case to accepting apologies with the idea that we all learn something and the “look the other way”

OPINION | FOURTH ESTATE

With four leading presidential contenders in their 70s, the VP slot has never been more meaningful.

Bernie Sanders

Getty Images

By JACK SHAFER

02/19/2020 09:17 PM EST

Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.

The vice presidency—likened to a “warm bucket of piss” by John Nance Garner, who suffered eight years in the office under FDR, and called a political dead end by others—has miraculously become Washington’s second most desirable job.

It’s not that the job has changed. What’s given the vice presidency a new sheen is the advanced age of four leading contenders for the presidency—Donald Trump, 73; Bernie Sanders, 78; Mike Bloomberg, 78; and Joe Biden, 77. None of the four amigos are likely to croak tomorrow, but the actuarial odds are bending against them. One scholar on aging reports that Trump has an 84.8 percent chance of surviving a 2020 term, while Sanders, Bloomberg and Biden rate several percentage points worse.

Advertisement

Lest you think I’m being ageist for harping on the candidates’, um, advanced maturity and general health, let me point out that they’re currently slicing each other up on the topic. On Wednesday, a Sanders spokesman fended off questions about her candidate’s health cast aspersion on Bloomberg health. She claimed he had had multiple heart attacks in the past. Not so, the Bloomberg campaign responded, explaining the Mike has never had a heart attack but he does have three heart stents. This language in this column may strike you as morbid but it’s no more morbid than what the campaigns are saying about one another.

If the Democratic Party is paying attention to this actuarial action—and I think it is—their next veep nominee won’t be another no-name ticket balancer picked to satisfy the geographic, gender, and ethnicity needs of the ticket. Rather, he (or she) will be selected based on the understanding that he stands a higher statistical chance completing the term of the presidential nominee than veeps before him. Instead of nominating one prospective president, the Democrats especially will effectively be nominating two. In the absence of a crystal ball, there’s no way to determine whether the winning candidate will survive his term. But it shouldn’t take a crystal ball to see that the advanced ages of these candidate should be a major campaign issue.

Of course, any president, no matter his age, could drop dead tomorrow. In 1961, writer Clare Booth Luce asked Lyndon Baines Johnson why he had surrendered his powerful position as Senate majority leader to become John F. Kennedy’s veep. “Clare, I looked it up: one out of every four presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got,” he answered. Johnson was a little off—at the time, one in five presidents had died in office (four from natural causes and three from assassination). But he was also operating on the forbidden knowledge that Kennedy was a sick man who required heavy medication.

Consider the shaky grip the current frontrunners have on life. Sanders had an onstage heart attack last fall and has failed on his promise to release all of his medical records. Trump, the oldest president ever elected to a first term, is clinically obese, walks with a heavy gait, reportedly sleeps only 4-5 hours per night, looks terrible and plays similar games with his medical records. And then there’s that suspicious unplanned visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center he took in November. If Trump were to expire tomorrow in his golf cart, who would be astonished? Joe Biden projects more physical vigor than either Sanders or Trump, but his brain was marbled by two life-threatening aneurysms in 1988, requiring a microsurgical craniotomy. Only Bloomberg exhibits both physically and mentally vital, but at his age—and even with his billions—how long can he hold that pose?

Advertisement

The best historical parallel to 2020 might be 1944, when a frail Franklin Roosevelt prepared to run for his fourth term. Roosevelt had come to doubt that his existing vice president, Henry Wallace, would make a good successor in the likely event that he died. So he dumped Wallace for Harry S Truman. One day, Truman was drowning in the warm bucket of piss. The next, he was floating in a presidential sea of ambrosia. The 2008 election provided another example when the veep slot was more prize than consolation. At age 72, John McCain was older than any newly elected president, and was not a healthy man. Mindful that his war-time injuries and history of melanoma might conspire to prevent him from completing his first term, McCain reached down a full generation to select the youthful Sarah Palin, then 44, as his running mate. If Democrats follow that template, you can expect somebody like Stacy Abrams, a relative youngster at 46, to fill the ticket this year.

It should go without saying that the vice presidency will return to its low status if the Democrats nominate a young presidential candidate like Pete Buttigieg, 38, this year. Buttigieg has only a minuscule chance of dying in office, which could be career-ender for anybody who might run and win with him. At the end of Buttigieg’s two hypothetical terms, his veep would be stale political bread with little chance of winning the next presidential contest. History is quite consistent on this point: Since passage of the 12th Amendment, only two vice presidents—Martin Van Buren and George H.W. Bush—have been elected president immediately following the completion of their vice presidential terms. (Richard Nixon lost in 1960, but won the office eight years after his vice presidency concluded.)

The four elderly amigos can’t take sole credit for making the vice presidency potentially great again. You’ve got to tip the hat to Trump, whose erratic behavior nearly activated the 25th Amendment in May 2017. In pre-Trumpian times, the amendment—which allows the vice president to become the acting president should the president be ruled unable to “discharge the powers and duties of his office”—was used sparingly. It was invoked during Ronald Reagan’s colon surgery and George W. Bush’s colonoscopies. But nobody contemplated using it on a sitting president until Trump started acting nutty and fired FBI Director James Comey. Although nothing came of it, administration aides reportedly worked behind his back to activate the amendment and replace him with Mike Pence as acting president.

Should we elect a geezer president in 2020—something that looks more likely with every passing day—we can expect his aides to interpret the victor’s every behavior for signs of physical disability or mental breakdown. Meanwhile, in a separate room, we can expect the once lowly veep to patiently await his promotion by death.

******

As an aged candidate and incumbent, Trump could have easily shopped for a “better” veep than Mike Pence for 2020. By better I mean younger and more accomplished. Instead, Trump again bestowed the slot upon the slavishly loyal 60-year-old Pence. This indicates Trump has no intention of dying. Neither do I. Send longevity hints via mail to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts and my Twitter feed would make a great ticket. My RSS feed remains in exile.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s