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Paul Ryan and the evolution of the vice presidency

By Edward Zelinsky


By selecting Representative Paul Ryan as the Republican vice presidential nominee, Romney confirmed the decline of the traditional role of vice presidential candidates as providers of geographic balance. Ryan’s selection reinforces the shift to a more policy-oriented definition of the vice presidency. This shift reflects the nationalization of our culture and politics and the increased importance of the general election debate between vice presidential candidates.

Traditionally, a vice presidential candidate usually came from a large swing state in a section of the country removed from the presidential candidate’s home state. The classic (and most successful) instance of this once conventional pattern was John Kennedy’s selection in 1960 of Lyndon Johnson as Kennedy’s running mate. Johnson was picked to deliver the electoral votes of Texas and other southern states to a ticket headed by a candidate from Massachusetts. It worked.

A generation later, another Democratic presidential nominee from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, emulated Kennedy by selecting as his vice presidential nominee Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen. This time it didn’t work, but the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket fell well within the tradition of geographic balancing.

The new, policy-oriented pattern commenced in the next election in 1992 when Bill Clinton of Arkansas named as his running mate the senator from next door, Tennessee’s Al Gore. In terms of geographic balance, a Clinton-Gore ticket made no sense — two southerners from neighboring states.

Clinton saw the role of the vice president differently. Gore possessed Washington experience and connections Clinton lacked. Gore thus provided, not geographic balance, but national experience and expertise. This departure from traditional geographic ticket balancing worked for the Democrats both in 1992 and in 1996.

When it was Gore’s turn to choose a running mate in 2000, Gore too departed from tradition, turning to Connecticut’s junior senator, Joe Lieberman. True, Lieberman came from a northern state, Connecticut. But the Nutmeg State, then with eight electoral votes, was not a great electoral prize nor was it in serious doubt for the Democratic ticket. Gore turned to Lieberman because the ethically-challenged image of the Clinton Administration was a problem for Gore. Lieberman’s reputation for ethical probity provided useful ballast to the Democratic ticket.

But it was the Bush-Cheney ticket in 2000 which truly broke the geographic balancing mold. Bush did not pick Cheney for the vice presidency to secure Wyoming’s three electoral votes. Rather, the Texas Governor selected Cheney to bring to the ticket Cheney’s perceived gravitas including his experience as Wyoming’s congressman, Secretary of Defense, and White House Chief of Staff.

By 2008, it was no longer innovative when Barack Obama selected Joseph Biden of Delaware as his vice presidential running mate. Biden was not placed on the ticket to secure Delaware’s three electoral votes or otherwise secure geographic balance. Like Gore and Cheney, Biden was perceived as a Washington insider and policy expert. Biden’s experience augmented a ticked headed by a presidential candidate whose tenure in the nation’s capital consisted of a single, not-yet-completed term in the US Senate.

Ryan fits comfortably within the newer, policy-oriented vision of the vice presidency. It doesn’t hurt that Ryan comes from Wisconsin, a state the Republicans are eager to put into play. But unlike some of the other individuals Romney considered for the vice presidential nomination (such as Senator Portman of Ohio or Senator Rubio of Florida), Ryan doesn’t come from a major swing state. Indeed, Ryan himself has never run for statewide office in Wisconsin.

Ryan was picked because he is a young, articulate conservative policy wonk. Romney chose Ryan because of Ryan’s ideas, not Ryan’s home state.

What has caused this evolution of the vice presidency? A key factor is the nationalization of our culture and our politics. Kennedy and Johnson (as well as Dukakis and Bentsen) were individuals deeply rooted in their respective home states. We have become a more mobile nation. Barack Obama (born and raised in Hawaii, educated in California, New York, and Massachusetts) was a senator from Illinois. But his biography is itself a story of geographic balance.

The same is true of Mitt Romney, born and raised in Michigan, educated in California, Utah, and Massachusetts. Romney’s business career occurred in Massachusetts as did his one term as the Bay State’s governor. But no one even expects Romney to carry Massachusetts in November.

Just as the life stories of the presidential candidates are no longer centered in their “home” states, the electorate reflects America’s mobility as a nation. Consequently, geographic ties mean less today than they did in the past; roughly 40% of Americans today live in a different state than the state in which they were born.

Moreover, modern communications instantly nationalize our political figures. Paul Ryan will soon be as well-known in Texas as he is in Wisconsin. In this world of mobility and instant national communications, geographic ticket-balancing is less compelling than it was in the past.

A second factor buttressing the evolution of the vice presidency is the emergence of the vice presidential debates. When Kennedy and Nixon conducted the first presidential debates in 1960, there was no vice presidential debate between Johnson and the Republican nominee, Henry Cabot Lodge.

Today, the vice presidential debate is an important event on the campaign calendar. In picking a running mate, a presidential candidate must consider this event. My son Aaron and his colleagues at the Presidential Debate Blog correctly observe that Senator Bentsen uttered the most famous line in presidential debating: “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.” However, debate skills don’t always correspond with geographic balance. Ryan was in large measure selected because of his ability to go toe-to-toe, rhetorically and intellectually, with Vice President Biden.

We will, no doubt, some day again see a presidential candidate select his or her vice presidential running mate from a large swing state in a section of the country far from the presidential candidate’s home state. But that geographic balancing mold is now longer dominant.

Edward A. Zelinsky is the Morris and Annie Trachman Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. He is the author of The Origins of the Ownership Society: How The Defined Contribution Paradigm Changed America. His column ‘EZ Thoughts’ appears on the OUPblog monthly.

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Image credit: Seal of the Vice President of the United States. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. [...] Zelinsky has written this post for the OUP Blog. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← [...]

  2. Sanjay Ratnaparakhi

    Sir, I read your comment on Vice President election of U.S. I like your article. The every election develop the the culture to Democracy. India also had same exprience and this expriences will give guidelines for our social development.
    Sanjay Ratnaparakhi

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