Sorry, folks -- Biden is here to stay

By Joel K. Goldstein
Saturday, August 28, 2010

Over the years, "Let's Dump the Vice President" has played inside the Beltway more often than "Casablanca." So it's not surprising that some are speculating that President Obama may replace Vice President Biden in 2012 with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

It's not going to happen. Let's move on.

Most modern vice presidents have been subject to this sort of rumor. Even influential vice presidents, such as Walter Mondale and Dick Cheney, did not escape stories that their jobs were in jeopardy -- despite the lack of basis for such suggestions.

Only three of the 23 vice presidents since 1900 have been dumped, and in each case for reasons that don't apply here. The two Democratic dumpees were two of Franklin Roosevelt's vice presidents. John Nance Garner challenged FDR for the presidency in 1940. Henry Wallace had always been anathema to Democratic bosses and was a heartbeat away when FDR's health was noticeably failing. Later, Nelson Rockefeller was a serious liability in Gerald Ford's effort to win the 1976 Republican nomination when challenged by Ronald Reagan.

Biden has none of these liabilities. He is not going to challenge Obama for nomination; neither is any other serious Democratic opponent. If someone does, Biden will serve as Obama's chief surrogate to secure his renomination, a role in which Mondale performed effectively in 1980 for Jimmy Carter and Dan Quayle did 12 years later for George H.W. Bush. Unlike Wallace and Rockefeller, Biden is popular within his party. And Biden has attended to his party role, whereas Wallace and Rockefeller did not during their vice presidencies.

The speculators ignore other lessons from history, such as that it's difficult to dump a vice president, even one, unlike Biden, whose approval ratings are in the tank. Dwight Eisenhower learned that in 1956, when he told Richard M. Nixon to "chart out his own course" with the gentle suggestion that Nixon might better fulfill his presidential ambitions by serving in a Cabinet position rather than remaining on the ticket. Eisenhower had suffered one disclosed heart attack, and misgivings about Nixon made him a campaign liability. But Nixon understood that the vice presidency was his best springboard and stayed in place.

Sixteen years later, Nixon wanted to jettison the inept Spiro T. Agnew to advance the presidential prospects of John Connally. Yet Agnew had become a hero of the Republican base, and Nixon opted to keep Agnew rather than place any obstacle in his own path to a landslide reelection.

In 1992, highly placed associates of the first President Bush sought to replace Quayle with Colin Powell or someone else. Whereas Eisenhower and Nixon were headed to landslide reelections, Bush was in trouble. Yet Quayle enjoyed support from the Republican base, had served Bush loyally and wasn't the cause of Bush's political troubles. Bush put the kibosh on their efforts.

There are substantial costs to dumping a vice president absent extraordinary conditions. The president who drops a vice president is likely to upset his base, raise questions about his capacity for loyalty and appear weak.

Obama has no political reason to dump Biden, who is not the source of the president's problems. Obama's issues stem from the economy and the administration's failure to convince the electorate of its accomplishments.

Some have argued that while Biden is not a drag on the ticket, he is also not able to produce the excitement Clinton would ignite. Although Clinton's unique stature and the skill with which she has handled her Cabinet role are clear, she is not the solution to Obama's perceived difficulties. Her popularity would probably suffer if she returned to a partisan role, and Obama would pay a price for removing Biden.

Nor is there a governmental reason to change the ticket. Biden has been one of the most consequential vice presidents in U.S. history. He has been an important presidential adviser who has sometimes constructively challenged assumptions of other counselors. He has capably handled the substantial domestic and foreign policy assignments Obama has given him. Far from the divisive figure some vice presidents have been, Biden has modeled civil discourse and bipartisanship in an age when those values are vanishing.

Unless Biden tires of his role, he'll be the president's running mate in 2012. So instead of speculating about something that's not going to happen, let's use our time more constructively to discuss the nation's real problems. Or to watch "Casablanca."

Joel K. Goldstein, a professor at Saint Louis University's School of Law, is the author of "The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution."

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