Before the political world learned of Vice President Biden’s 2016 plans, the Washington Post published a “cautionary tale” this morning, with a historical reference I’d forgotten about.
The septuagenarian vice president dithered while the Democratic field took shape. By the time he finally jumped in, the VP could not count on his former Senate colleagues to back his bid and never became the white knight he thought he would. The base wanted someone who was not part of the administration and who had not spent the bulk of his adult life in Washington.Alben Barkley was Harry Truman’s vice president when Truman decided not to run for another term in 1952. Barkley, after watching others build campaigns, decided to run for the Democratic nomination late in the process and never got traction. His disastrous experience could be instructive for Joe Biden as he plots his own long-shot campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Obviously, we now know that Biden has decided against such a course, though the Barkley parallels are interesting. As the Post’s piece noted, both had 36-year careers on Capitol Hill before they joined a younger man’s administration as VP.
But this got me thinking about history, and how many vice presidents – many of whom hated the job – saw the office as a stepping stone to the presidency. Looking back over recent generations, familiar names no doubt come to mind: former Vice President Al Gore ran in 2000 and (sort of) lost; former Vice President George H.W. Bush ran in 1988 and won; former Vice President Walker Mondale ran in 1984 and lost; former Vice President Hubert Humphrey ran in 1968 and lost; former Vice President Richard Nixon ran in 1960 and lost, but then tried again in 1968 and won; etc.
Biden, however, will walk away from the game altogether after his second term ends next year. The question becomes, just how rare is this?
I spent a little time this afternoon looking at the careers of each of the vice presidents, some of whom were elevated after a sitting president died, some of whom died in office themselves.
But how many vice presidents were elected, served, stayed in his party’s good graces, and then simply walked away from elected office, never running for anything again? It’s a surprisingly small club.
By my count, there are really only a handful of VPs who make the list, including George Dallas and William Wheeler. Among two-term vice presidents – those who served a full eight years – the club shrinks to just two people. Their names are Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, who just happen to be the two most recent vice presidents.
Sure, you can start making arguments for some other folks. John Nance Garner, for example, served eight years as FDR’s first VP, but I don’t count him because Roosevelt dropped him from his ticket. Daniel Tompkins served eight years as Monroe’s VP and didn’t seek the presidency, but he did run for governor after leaving the vice president’s office.
But as a historical matter, Biden’s course is very uncommon. He was elected to national office twice; he’s physically able to run; and he remains a popular figure in his party; but he’s retiring anyway. He and Cheney, oddly enough, may not have much in common, but they share a similar last chapter to their careers.