Advice to would-be Romney running mates: Run for the hills

Nothing is easier to mock in politics right now than the apparent reluctance of leading Republicans to sign on as Mitt Romney’s second banana. A few weeks ago, Jon Stewart summarized the way that Rob Portman was plugging his Senate colleague Marco Rubio, who in turn was passing the baton to Jeb Bush, with the line, “Doesn’t anyone want the rock in crunch time?”

Since naked ambition is the only bipartisan trait left in politics, however, no one takes these sorts of demurrals seriously. When someone like former primary candidate Tim Pawlenty says “Take my name off the list” for the umpteenth time, everyone assumes that he is merely trying to protect himself from the embarrassment of a high-profile rejection. (In his case, the Iowa Straw Poll was bad enough.)

But what if all these Romney refusniks are actually telling the truth? What if they made a rational calculation and concluded that the upside--sharing the history books with Spiro Agnew, seats at the best international funerals--is not worth the cost if Romney loses in the fall? We could hardly blame them. The modern history of what happens to losing vice presidential nominees is enough to make any politician recoil in horror.

Since 1972, there are eight people in this camp. (There have been ten elections, but two of the losing running mates—Walter Mondale and Dan Quayle—were sitting vice presidents who were voted out of office.) Exactly one of them, Lloyd Bentsen, who ran with Michael Dukakis in 1988, had his reputation burnished by the experience. Nearly all the others would have been much better off had they turned down the invitation.

(And we are not even counting Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate. Ill-prepared for the national spotlight, Stockdale began his opening statement in the vice-presidential debate with the seemingly puzzled words, “Who am I? Why am I here?” And that was how a cerebral man who had won the Medal of Honor for his bravery as a Vietnam POW became a national laughingstock.)

Running for vice president is one of the most arduous character tests in political life. The lucky nominees suddenly find themselves with entourages, motorcades, adoring crowds, and Secret Service protection without having had to earn it by winning primaries. It’s a challenge to anyone’s sense of proportion. At the same time, this ego-driven politician has to work with a borrowed (and sometimes disloyal) staff and is hamstrung by instructions never to overshadow the real candidate. Here is how the last eight losing nominees for the Throttlebottom job have measured up:

Tom Eagleton (1972)
The 1972 Democratic Convention was a portrait in chaos, especially when it came to George McGovern’s choice of a running mate. After Ted Kennedy turned him down, McGovern tapped his Senate colleague Eagleton, asking him only an open-ended question about skeletons in the closet. Eagleton neglected to mention a Halloween-like detail -- he had been hospitalized for depression and received electro-shock treatments. When the story broke after the convention, McGovern stood behind Eagleton “one-thousand percent” until he did the political math and bounced him from the ticket.

Sargeant Shriver, Ted Kennedy’s brother-in-law, was the good-soldier replacement candidate nominated by the Democratic National Committee. Being part of the McGovern debacle was not an ideal launching pad. When Shriver sought the presidency himself in 1976, his candidacy effectively died when he finished fifth with 3 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses.

Bob Dole (1976)
Confident that he could wing it in the first vice-presidential debate against Democrat Walter Mondale, Dole disregarded the briefing books prepared by Gerald Ford’s staff and went for the one-liners. The problem was that one of Dole’s ad-libbed riffs was about totaling up the number of soldiers killed in “Democrat wars” from World War I to Vietnam. It took Dole years to recover from the resulting hatchet-man reputation. As Dole said ruefully after Ford lost, “They told me to go for the jugular – so I did. It was mine.”

Geraldine Ferraro (1984)
A protégé of House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Ferraro probably would have become a congressional power player if Walter Mondale had not tapped her as the first woman on a national ticket. Instead, Ferraro became another case study in inadequate running mate vetting. The murky real-estate dealings of her husband, John Zaccaro, provoked a media firestorm that partially obscured the historic significance of her nomination. Ferraro never fully recovered politically, losing two subsequent Senate primaries in New York.

Lloyd Bentsen (1988)
Bentsen delivered one of most withering putdowns in political history when he said to the youthful Dan Quayle in the vice-presidential debate: “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Bentsen was able to simultaneously run for reelection to the Senate from Texas while also campaigning with Michael Dukakis for vice president. Senator Bentsen ran 1.7 million votes ahead of would-be Vice President Bentsen, conclusively proving the non-existence of bottom-of-the-ticket coattails. Running with Dukakis burnished Bentsen’s reputation nationally, which helped him become Bill Clinton’s first Treasury secretary.

Jack Kemp (1996)
Put on the Republican ticket in 1996 mostly to convince the GOP base that presidential nominee Bob Dole was a supply-side tax-cutter at heart, Kemp was pretty much a neutral factor in his final campaign for public office. Having already run for president in 1988, Kemp proved that a politician in the post-ambition phase of his career can survive as a losing VP candidate.

Joe Lieberman (2000)
Just a few hanging chads away from the vice-presidential mansion on Massachusetts Avenue, Lieberman descended in six years from Al Gore’s running mate to persona non grata in the Democratic Party. The reasons why Lieberman lost the 2006 Senate Democratic primary are complex, but one of them was that he stopped coming home to Connecticut regularly and explaining his hawkish foreign-policy views after he became a national figure. Lieberman offers the first (and mildest) recorded case of Vice-Presidential Ego Syndrome.

John Edwards (2004)
With his trial over alleged election-law violations now in the hands of  the jury, we can reflect on two possibilities for Edwards: That he was a fraud when John Kerry put him on the ticket, or that the vice-presidential experience brought out all the worst qualities of this political narcissist. Either way, Edwards represents the road that no one in politics wants to follow.

Sarah Palin (2008)

If the point of running for vice president and losing is to become rich and famous, then Sarah Palin is a star-spangled success story. If, however, having a serious career in politics was her goal, Palin erred in preferring reality-show politics to statesmanship.

What a rogue’s gallery of veep creeps. Portman, Rubio or anyone else on the supposed Romney short list might consider losing their cell phones and abandoning their BlackBerries. To be extra safe, they may want to embark on lengthy fact-finding tours of Outer Mongolia that take them off the grid through September. Judging from history, the prudent course clearly is to go missing from Mitt.