Commentary Magazine


Clinton’s Advantage over Biden: She Got Out in Time

The volume of coverage for the 2016 presidential election has put a premium on any analysis that makes an original (but plausible) point. A touch of contrarianism always helps as well, which makes Joel K. Goldstein’s guest column at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball website intriguing. Goldstein argues that the general assumption that the vice presidency is a poor launching pad for the presidency is based on faulty logic and bad numbers.

He references the current corollary, the belief that Joe Biden–already an underdog against Hillary Clinton–simply cannot win in 2016. Goldstein isn’t attempting to boost a Biden candidacy, but he seeks to correct the basis for skepticism toward American veeps. They have a better record, when we account for various important and mitigating variables, than we tend to think. He writes:

Those who dismiss the vice presidency as a good source of presidential candidates often note that only four of the 47 men who have held the nation’s second office were elected president upon the retirement of the chief executive with whom they served. Yet the 1/12 ratio is a highly misleading measure. Nine of the 47 vice presidents became president through the death or resignation of their predecessor. Accordingly, they could not have been elected directly from the vice presidency. Nor could most of the seven vice presidents who died in office or the two who resigned. (Yes, these numbers include George Clinton and John C. Calhoun, who theoretically could have been elected president before serving a second vice presidential term with a new president. But being passed over for James Madison and Andrew Jackson respectively is hardly a disgrace.) Of the remaining 29 vice presidents, 12 (including Biden) were effectively blocked because a president of their party with whom they served sought another term.

Of the 17 other sitting vice presidents, eight were chosen as a national presidential candidate and four were elected. So once the denominator is reduced by eliminating those sitting VPs who essentially could not have succeeded their predecessor by election, some 47% of America’s sitting vice presidents have been nominated for the presidency (8/17), and 24% of the eligible pool were elected (4/17). Of the nine others, some, like Dick Cheney, credibly disclaimed any presidential ambition.

Though the modern era would seem to be less hospitable to sitting vice presidents than some earlier eras, Goldstein writes that this isn’t so: “since 1953, each of the four sitting vice presidents who sought the presidency following the retirement of the incumbent (Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey, George H.W. Bush and Al Gore) won the nomination and were either elected (Bush) or ran dead-even races for president against formidable opponents.”

Additionally, he writes, we tend to use arguments against the vice president that we don’t against others. We like to say, for example, that Americans are more likely to elect a governor as president. But we don’t talk about all the governors who don’t become president, or the odds that the successful governor-turned-president had to overcome.

I don’t intend to argue with Goldstein’s numbers. But I would say that one aspect of this that directly affects Biden’s chances has to do with the popularity and perceived success of the administration in which the veep serves. Look at the vice presidents Goldstein mentions. Nixon served Eisenhower, who left office (via Gallup) with a 59 percent approval rating. George H.W. Bush served Reagan, who left office with a 63 percent approval rating. Gore served Bill Clinton, who left office at 66 percent approval. Humphrey served Lyndon Johnson, who left with 49 percent approval.

We don’t know where Barack Obama will fall on that list. But he’s struggling now, and this is of particular concern for Biden because his likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, has already left the administration and can thus, in classic Clinton form, ditch unpopular policies and pretend to have had strong strategic instincts from the beginning. Biden cannot.

For example, Biden announced the administration’s “reset” with Russia, which turned out to be an appalling fiasco. But Clinton, as the nation’s chief diplomat, took high-profile stewardship of the reset. The disastrous policy still follows Biden around, as he must survey the wreckage of his administration’s failures and try to contain the damage. Clinton mocked Mitt Romney’s contention about Russia’s geopolitical threat to America, but now, freed from the administration, she can simply pretend she isn’t totally and catastrophically naïve about Russia:

Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton has urged Canada to forge a unified front with its U.S. neighbour to counter what she portrayed as heightened aggression by Russia in the Arctic.

Speaking to a sold-out crowd in Montreal on Tuesday night, the former first lady and possible future presidential candidate used her podium to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions not just in Ukraine, but closer to Canada’s borders.

Putin is coming for you, Canada! This comes on the heels of Clinton’s comparison of Putin to Hitler. Such verbal gymnastics are not so easy for Biden, who is still serving in this administration and therefore can’t rewrite his own history the way Clinton can. Which makes him much more likely to go down with the ship, as Clinton and her life raft float off in the distance.

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