Switching Horses—When Presidents Drop VPs
Vice President Joe Biden has a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease—but is it fatal? During his many years of dedicated public service, Biden has had his share of slipups, some off-color, some inappropriate, some just plain mistaken.
… Biden told a largely African-American audience that a Romney presidency would “put y’all back in chains.”
Biden’s recent gaffes include inviting wheelchair-bound Missouri senator Chuck Graham to “stand up and let ’em see you” and referring to the “three-letter word, J-O-B-S.”
His latest came during a speech on the economy in Virginia. Affecting a Southern accent, Biden told a largely African-American audience that a Romney presidency would “put y’all back in chains.”
If Not Biden—Who?
Virginia’s Democratic former governor Doug Wilder, the nation’s first elected African-American governor, took particular offense at Biden’s remark. Wilder renewed his call, first made in 2010, for Obama to replace Biden on the 2012 ticket with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Some pundits, alleging connections deep inside the White House, claim that such a swap was actually considered, but rejected out of concern that Clinton would turn it down. According to these reports, Obama advisors feared the negative publicity should Clinton’s refusal become public.
Most commentators agree that replacing Biden is unlikely.
Switching Horses In Our Past
FDR’s String of VPs
John Nance Garner, a conservative Southerner, was vice president during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first two terms.
However, tensions developed over Garner’s distaste for the New Deal’s deficit spending.
When the Supreme Court declared a number of New Deal programs invalid, the president sought to “pack” the Supreme Court with sympathetic justices. Garner worked openly against the president and, when FDR ran for an unprecedented third term, Garner was replaced by Henry A. Wallace.
When Roosevelt sought a fourth term in 1944, Democratic Party officials feared his poor health would prevent him from completing it.
Even though Wallace had become a Democrat, his Republican roots made him unpopular among FDR’s advisors. Not wanting a former Republican to become president, the party pressured Roosevelt to replace Wallace with Democratic senator Harry S. Truman. (FDR did die a month into his new term and Truman became president.)
Lincoln and Grant
Under Abraham Lincoln, Hannibal Hamlin, the nation’s first Republican vice president, served capably but had little authority.
However, when Lincoln sought reelection in the midst of the Civil War, Hamlin became expendable. Seeking to broaden his base of support among Democrats who opposed the war, Lincoln replaced Hamlin with Democrat Andrew Johnson. Following Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson became president.
Ulysses S. Grant’s first vice president, Schuyler Colfax, was caught taking bribes in a scandal involving the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. When Grant sought a second term in 1872, he replaced Colfax with Massachusetts senator Henry Wilson. Unfortunately for Grant, it was later revealed that, while in the Senate, Wilson had also been involved in the same railroad scandal.
Jefferson, Burr, and Clinton
While serving as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president, Aaron Burr killed political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Burr’s political career was effectively over although he completed his term. Jefferson replaced him with New York governor George Clinton on the reelection ticket in 1804.
Clinton served during Jefferson’s second term and as James Madison’s first vice president, becoming the first VP to serve under two presidents. (Clinton was also the first vice president to die in office.)
Calhoun’s Complicated Career
The only other vice president to serve two presidents was John C. Calhoun. Calhoun served under John Quincy Adams from 1825 to 1829. He then became Andrew Jackson’s running mate in 1828, as Jackson—whom Adams had beaten in 1824—defeated Adams’ bid for a second term.
Jackson and Calhoun clashed almost from the outset. The last straw came when Jackson learned that Calhoun, while serving as President James Monroe’s secretary of war, had tried to derail Jackson’s military career in 1819.
Certain of being ousted, Calhoun resigned as vice president (the first to do so) in late 1832 to run successfully for the U.S. Senate. Jackson replaced him on the 1832 ticket with Martin Van Buren, who four years later was himself elected president. (Richard Nixon’s VP Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 after being charged with bribery.)
Embarrassment or Asset?
In a recent blog for The Daily Beast, Meghan McCain (daughter of 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain) gently chided Biden as “the wacky grandfather who says inappropriate things at the Thanksgiving dinner table.”
Writing this week in The Wall Street Journal, Joseph Epstein archly characterized Biden as an asset, after a fashion. “What Mr. Biden does provide is contrast for the president. . . . Next to Mr. Biden, in other words, Mr. Obama looks earnest, serious, deep, a statesman.”
Although President Obama has expressed mild frustration with Biden’s “phrasing,” his campaign maintains that the ticket is solid. In recent interviews, the president has tried to keep the focus on the issues that Biden is covering, describing the media’s obsession with gaffes as little more than a distraction.