Sabato's Crystal Ball

Yogi Berra and Veepstakes

Joel K. Goldstein, Guest Columnist July 26th, 2012

The wisdom of Yogi Berra can illuminate most situations life presents. That versatility became apparent again last week when former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) described being considered to be the running mate for Mitt Romney as “a little bit of déjà vu all over again.” Four years ago, Pawlenty was runner up to Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) to be John McCain’s running mate. Pawlenty cleared his schedule and waited expectantly for the call that never came. Instead, McCain chose Palin after his staff belatedly added her to the long list, then the short list, and vetted her on an accelerated basis. Finally, McCain met with her, right before making his selection.

Although Pawlenty is the most conspicuous repeat entry in Veepstakes this year, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was also among those McCain vetted in 2008 (although much less seriously than Pawlenty). Jindal appears a more serious contender this time than he was four years ago. Sen. Rob Portman (OH), then coming off a tour as George W. Bush’s budget director, drew some mentions in 2008, but he was not among those seriously considered. Portman and his congressional colleagues, Sens. Kelly Ayotte (NH), Marco Rubio (FL), John Thune (SD) and Rep. Paul Ryan (WI), are essentially in the vetting process for the first time, assuming they all are really in the process.

The vice-presidential vetting process, as it has developed since 1976, is an intrusive ordeal that Sen. Joe Lieberman compared to a colonoscopy without anesthesia. The probing explores virtually every avenue of a prospective candidate’s life, as well as those of his or her spouse and family. A candidate’s marital (and any extramarital) life, finances, political and professional career and health are among the topics meticulously scrutinized. Multiple years of tax returns are produced and examined, along with speeches, writings and campaign fundraising documents. For the vetted, it’s time consuming and sometimes expensive because it may involve fees for lawyers, accountants and so forth. And it’s uncomfortable.

Observers tend to view each year’s edition of Veepstakes as a new story unto itself and, to some extent, each is. But as Pawlenty, and Yogi Berra’s line, point out, we’ve seen it all (or most of it) before, and ultimately, for those in the process and those of us watching it, this year’s outcome is likely to repeat some familiar patterns.

Some who have been through the experience once forego the “all over again.” Having been the runner-up to Jack Kemp in Bob Dole’s 1996 search, Sen. Connie Mack (FL) reportedly told Dick Cheney four years later that if Cheney included Mack on the list to be vetted for then-Gov. George W. Bush (TX), Mack would never speak to Cheney again. (Some others who did submit to a Cheney political colonoscopy that year reportedly also later felt like not speaking to Bush’s ultimate selectee.)

But most, like Pawlenty, have agreed to a second and even a third time through the process, with mixed results.

Take John Glenn, who for 24 years served in the Senate seat Portman now holds. Glenn was among those Jimmy Carter most seriously vetted in 1976. At one point, Glenn was the front-runner, and he was one of only three (Sens. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine and Walter Mondale of Minnesota being the other two) given the honor of a trip to Plains, GA for one of the visible interviews with Carter. Glenn’s star faded, and he was probably out of the running before his uninspired convention co-keynote. Carter narrowed the field to Mondale and Muskie before choosing Mondale.

Twelve years, and like Pawlenty, a failed presidential campaign later, Glenn again emerged as a prime vice-presidential contender, this time for Gov. Michael Dukakis (MA) in 1988. Once more, Glenn seemed a very credible possibility (respected Senate service for nearly 14 years, from Ohio, national hero), but was passed over when Dukakis resurrected the Boston-Austin axis from 1960 by choosing Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (TX), who emerged as one of the most well-regarded vice-presidential candidates in recent times.

Glenn was not alone in being a repeat loser in the vice-presidential sweepstakes. Sen. Howard Baker (TN) was strongly considered in 1976 when President Gerald R. Ford chose Sen. Bob Dole (KS), and in 1980 when Ronald Reagan selected George H.W. Bush.

Sen. Bob Graham (FL) (who once held the Florida Senate seat Rubio has held since 2011) was among those in strongest contention in 1992 when Bill Clinton chose Al Gore, but was also in the process in some other years, including 2004. Rep. Dick Gephardt (MO) came close in 2004 (and was even anointed as “Kerry’s Choice” in a full-page, front-page New York Post gaffe) after also being vetted in 1988.

Indiana, the source of five vice presidents (Schuyler Colfax, Thomas Hendricks, Charles Fairbanks, Thomas Marshall and Dan Quayle) and the home of the Quayle Vice Presidential Learning Center, has produced several recent repeat Veepstakes losers. Rep. Lee Hamilton was among those Dukakis and Clinton vetted but rejected. Recently retired Sen. Evan Bayh, who was among those Gore vetted in 2000, was also in the running eight years later when Barack Obama chose Sen. Joe Biden (DE) instead. Sen. Dick Lugar was vetted by Reagan’s team in 1980 but did not receive serious consideration in 1988 when Bush chose Indiana’s junior senator, Quayle, instead.

For others, the second time proved the charm. George H.W. Bush was runner up when President Ford decided to nominate former New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller to be vice president under the 25th Amendment in 1974. Donald Rumsfeld reportedly ran third. Ford dumped Rockefeller in November 1975 as his 1976 running mate, but Bush was later removed from consideration for Ford’s 1976 ticket as a concession to Senate Democrats to secure his confirmation as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. But four years later, Bush became Reagan’s running mate after Reagan’s convention negotiations with Ford proved unsuccessful.

Gore was among those Dukakis considered in 1988 before Clinton chose him four years later. Rep. Jack Kemp (NY) was passed over in 1988 when George H.W. Bush chose Quayle, but eight years later, after taking a series of steps that seemed likely to doom his chances, Kemp became Dole’s running mate.  (Kemp was also on Ronald Reagan’s longer list in 1980.) When reporters followed Biden near the end of John Kerry’s 2004 search, he told them they were in the wrong place. Four years later, he was in the right place. Bentsen (1984, 1988) and Edwards (2000, 2004) were among those chosen the second (but not first) time they were seriously considered for the ticket. From an earlier period, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (MN) also fell into that group. He was heartbroken when Adlai Stevenson threw the 1956 vice-presidential nomination to the Democratic convention to decide after Humphrey thought Stevenson had indicated he was his choice. Eight years later, though, President Lyndon B. Johnson chose Humphrey.

Three other recent political luminaries had the opposite experience. Muskie (1968, 1976), Dole (1976, 1988) and Lieberman (2000, 2008) were chosen for a national ticket, but were then passed over as the running mate in a later year when they sought a second chance.

There have even been some first-time Veepstakes winners in the post-1976 era, including Geraldine Ferraro (1984), Quayle (1988), Cheney and Lieberman (2000) and Palin (2008).

History suggests that, for most, political life continues even after being passed over for the second spot.

Some have managed to leverage being considered — but passed over — for the vice presidency to win a presidential nomination four years later. Dukakis was a Mondale contingency plan in 1984 should other choices not pan out, but he won the nomination four years later. John Kerry was one of Gore’s finalists in 2000 before being chosen as his party’s standard-bearer in 2004. And Romney was among those McCain passed over when he chose Palin but is, of course, the decider in 2012. In fact, if we extend the search back before the modern vetting process, Sen. John F. Kennedy (MA) was the runner-up (to Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee) when Stevenson threw the nomination to the 1956 convention, but JFK emerged as the Democratic nominee, and president, four years later.

This pattern may suggest that those narrowly passed over for vice president win the presidential nomination four years later — if they’re from Massachusetts. For those from Kansas, it may take eight years (Dole, passed over in 1988, became the Republican nominee in 1996). For a Tennessee Democrat, it takes 12 years and eight years as vice president (Gore, 1988, 2000); Tennessee Republicans (e.g. Baker, Sen. Lamar Alexander), on the other hand, get passed over for both positions.

Sometimes the vice-presidential losers of one cycle comprise the ticket the next. The 1988 Democratic ticket consisted of two possibilities Mondale had considered (Dukakis and Bentsen) in 1984, and the 2004 Democratic ticket paired Gore’s two unsuccessful finalists — Kerry and Edwards.

Carter was one of the few Democrats Sen. George McGovern (SD) didn’t consider to be his 1972 running mate, a position that interested the first-term Georgia governor. Four years later, Carter was the Democratic nominee and his running mate, Mondale, was one of those who had declined to run with McGovern.

Many others who were passed over for the ticket weren’t exactly failures in their remaining years, even though they never wound up on the national ticket. Glenn returned to the Senate, and in 1998 he became the oldest person to fly in space, his two trips coming more than 35 years apart. Baker became Senate Majority Leader and later Reagan’s third chief of staff, Gephardt became House Minority Leader and Lugar chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Muskie (State), Rumsfeld (Defense), Tom Ridge (Homeland Security), Henry Cisneros (Housing and Urban Development), Tom Vilsack (Agriculture), Elizabeth Dole (Labor) and William Ruckelshaus (EPA) went on to serve in the Cabinet after being rejected for the ticket, as did George H.W. Bush (CIA) and Kemp (Housing and Urban Affairs) between their VP rejections and VP selections. Elizabeth Dole was later elected to the Senate after her vice presidential consideration. Although Ferraro, not Dianne Feinstein (CA), became Mondale’s 1984 running mate, Feinstein was later elected to the Senate four times (and is heavily favored this year), whereas Ferraro lost two bids for the Democratic nomination in New York. Some (Sen. Alan K. Simpson, Hamilton, Graham) have chaired major national commissions in addition to their continued public service in Congress.

It should not be surprising that some passed over for the vice presidency later emerge as formidable political figures. Most of those who receive serious consideration for the second spot in modern times are committed and able public servants. The attention they receive when the Veepstakes casts a national spotlight on them may be helpful in their futures, but win or lose, many are likely to be in demand because of the qualities that brought them there in the first place.

No one (except perhaps Romney and a few in his inner circle) yet knows how Veepstakes 2012 will turn out. “It ain’t over till it’s over,” Yogi Berra taught the Mets — and us .

In less than a month, though, Veepstakes will be over. And however it turns out, it’ll be “déjà vu all over again.”

Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law. He is the author of The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution (Princeton University Press, 1982) and numerous other works on the vice presidency, presidency and constitutional law.