In all the media excitement over Gov. Mitt Romney’s selection of Representative Paul D. Ryan as his running mate on the Republican ticket, little attention has been focused on the rarity of an incumbent member of the House of Representatives holding second place on a national ticket. Each party has done it twice since 1900, with one success and one failure for both Republicans and Democrats so far.
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The Republicans led off in 1908 with the selection of James Schoolcraft “Sunny Jim” Sherman to run with William Howard Taft. A House member from upstate New York, Sherman was chosen to balance the “Western” choice of Taft, from Ohio. After the election, Sherman played almost no role in the Taft presidency. He presided over the Senate and played golf. After Taft defeated Theodore Roosevelt in the bitter 1912 Republican national convention, Sherman was re-nominated by default. He died of a heart condition shortly before the November voting and is now generally and deservedly forgotten.
Twenty years later, in the tumultuous 1932 Democratic convention that nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt for the first time, the Speaker of the House, John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner of Texas threw his delegates to F.D.R. at a key moment to break a multiballot deadlock and received the vice presidency in return. Later he famously opined that the position was not worth “a bucket of warm piss.” Garner sought the presidential nomination himself in 1940 but could not overcome the third term sentiment for President Roosevelt.
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Sherman and Garner were at least credible choices at the time. Barry Goldwater’s selection in 1964 of another New York House member, William Miller from Niagara County, was based on the theory that the intense partisanship Miller had shown as a Republican would aggravate Lyndon Johnson and drive him, in Goldwater’s word, “nuts.” Since Goldwater had no hope of carrying New York state, the choice of Miller had scant electoral rationale. Following Goldwater’s defeat, Miller was relegated to obscurity until he returned in 1975 in an American Express Card commercial asking “Do You Know Me?”
In 1984, facing electoral prospects as bleak as those of Goldwater, Walter Mondale listened to the feminist wing of the Democratic Party and selected Geraldine A. Ferraro as the first female running mate. Beyond that creditable innovation, Ferraro turned out to have crippling flaws, including a less than compelling campaign style and tangled family finances that invited skeptical press scrutiny. Thus the third House member from New York to be put on a national ticket went down.
Jack Kemp in 1996 was probably better known as a quarterback for the Buffalo Bills and housing secretary for George Bush than for his years as a tax-cutter in the House. Similarly, Dick Cheney had been a House member but his nomination in 2000 owed more to his executive experience in the White House and Defense Department and his shrewd exploitation of the selection process he oversaw for George W. Bush. The first President Bush himself had spent two terms in the House and lost two races for the Senate before becoming Ronald Reagan’s vice president.
To the chagrin of those from the lower House of Congress, the hated Senate has been a more promising route for vice presidents, from J. Danforth Quayle to Al Gore to Joseph R. Biden Jr. The Senate has also sent three men from the chamber right to the presidency: Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. Experience in the House can be plus; serving in the House when nominated, not so much. House members just don’t seem to have the presumed political heft of the solons in the upper house.
Can Paul Ryan emerge as a Sherman or a Garner, or will he languish as a Miller or a Ferraro? Is he an inspired choice or a risky pick, given his positions on Medicare vouchers and tax cuts for the wealthy? Some on the right already seem to wish that Ryan were the presidential candidate himself, which brings to mind the story that circulated when President Calvin Coolidge told William E. Borah, the senator from Idaho, in 1924 that he wanted him on the ticket. Borah is said to have replied: “Which place, Mr. President?”
Tickets where the vice presidential candidate seems to have more ideological and intellectual heft than the standard-bearer can be problematic. Think Michael S. Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen in 1988. Perhaps Romney’s choice did not turn on Ryan’s membership in the House or even on his status as chairman of the Budget Committee. Rather it played to a widespread sense on the right that Ryan would dominate Vice President Biden in their single debate and at the same time, by his mere presence, throw President Obama off his game.
So Ryan, like William Miller, may seem most attractive to Republicans as a means of driving Democrats to distraction and thus tempting them into a awkward gaffe or fatal slip. Ryan faces the demanding task of demonstrating that his reputation as a budget wonk and Republican intellectual in the House rests on more than just the marked absence in his caucus of serious competitors for these labels. Otherwise there may be an American Express commercial in his future, too.
Lewis L. Gould is professor emeritus of American history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans.”