Poor Dick Cheney. The man has been vice president for over five years, and the talking heads have spent most of them predicting his resignation. Even before Cheney took office in 2001, one physician-turned-pundit proclaimed the veep-elect unfit for duty because of his history of heart disease. Three years later, just before the Republican National Convention, Cheney happened to change doctors. Immediately, the whispers began that the new physician, privy to an elaborate conspiracy, would announce Cheney’s incapacity to serve, and that President Bush would pick a new running mate—perhaps Colin Powell or John McCain. And this February, after the hunting accident that New York’s Daily News dubbed “Birdgate,” a similar rumor surfaced, this time with Condoleezza Rice replacing the beleaguered vice president.
Why does the fantasy endure? Perhaps because it has bipartisan support. Liberals, of course, despise Cheney, portraying him as the éminence grise responsible for the Bush administration’s many sins. Conservatives, too, even those who admire Cheney, get excited about the prospect of replacing him. They point out, correctly, that Cheney certainly will not run for president in 2008, and that by naming a new vice president now, Bush could boost the electoral prospects of a chosen successor, probably Rice.
But the idea that a vice president has an edge in a national election is a myth. Since 1804, when electors began voting for president and vice president on separate ballots—replacing the old system, in which the runner-up in the presidential election became vice president—men boasting the vice presidency on their resumés have been on the ballot 21 times but have won just nine of those races. And in six of those nine cases, the victorious candidate was already the incumbent president, usually because his predecessor had died in office. And an incumbent president does have an advantage in an election.
A more significant—and surprising—statistic is that of the seven sitting vice presidents who have run for president since 1804, only two—Martin Van Buren and George H. W. Bush—have won. Perhaps sitting vice presidents make bad candidates precisely because they’re accustomed to having an advantage, unlike candidates who survive the rough-and-tumble of a party primary on their own merits. True, veep-free primaries don’t invariably yield strong national candidates; Michael Dukakis and Bob Dole come to mind. But the country’s strongest candidates in recent memory—Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush—have had to fight their way through hotly contested primaries.
Of particular interest is that since 1804, only one vice president has won two presidential elections: Richard Nixon, who tellingly lost his 1960 bid, when he was a sitting vice president, and then won elections in 1968 and 1972. The reason is probably the same: a candidate who has fought to win a nomination is likely to be stronger than a candidate handed the nomination on a silver platter. If the Republican Party wants to field a candidate who can win in 2008 and then again in 2012, it should hope that Bush doesn’t anoint a successor.
Let’s forgive the Condi enthusiasts. Sure, she’s smart, able, and unquestionably a star. But as her backers should be first to admit, she’s more than capable of proving that on the battleground of a primary.