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Unity Tickets Have Met Bad Ends

American History Suggests That Neither Presidential Candidate Should Reach Across The Aisle For A VP

The odds are surely against it, but as John McCain and Barack Obama near the conclusion of their vice presidential selection process, there's still some speculation that one, or both, might reach outside their party to pick their running mate. For Obama, the chatter has centered on retiring Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska; for McCain, the rumors have focused on Sen. Joe Lieberman, the "Independent Democrat" from Connecticut, who has been McCain's shadow on the campaign trail. Declarations from Hagel and Lieberman that they don't want the job haven't extinguished the discussions.

To the extent that the presumptive nominees are still considering these possibilities, history offers them three simple words of advice: Don't do it.


The president and vice president have been elected together since the approval of the 12th Amendment in 1804. (Before that, the candidate who attracted the most Electoral College votes won the presidency and the runner-up was chosen as vice president.) Since then, just two presidents have selected vice presidents who were not unambiguously members of the president's own party. Each instance proved an unconditional political disaster that effectively subverted the results of the previous election, tore apart the president's party and ended with efforts to impeach the man plucked from the opposition.

It's easy to see why a fusion, or unity, ticket is attractive in theory. Whether Obama or McCain wins in November, nothing will be more critical to their success than reaching beyond their core supporters and tempering the reflexive partisan conflict that has disabled Washington on most issues since the late 1990s. And few gestures would demonstrate a commitment to transcending partisan divisions more powerfully than the selection of a running mate from the other party. With both Obama and McCain making promises of national reconciliation a major component of their message, a cross-party running mate also could be a compelling electoral asset.

With no chance of winning re-nomination by the Whigs in 1844, John Tyler hoped to build his own Southern-tilting new party. Partly to enlarge his political base, he tirelessly worked with Southern allies to promote the annexation of Texas, which most Whigs resisted.


Over the years, considerations like those have inspired a steady, if not constant, stream of presidential nominees to toy with the fusion ticket idea. In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry hoped McCain might run as his No. 2. In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton's aides considered Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for President George H.W. Bush. In 1968, aides to Democratic nominee Hubert H. Humphrey approached Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal Republican governor of New York, to assess his interest in joining the ticket, notes Joel K. Goldstein, an expert on the vice presidency at the St. Louis University School of Law.

But only two presidents have actually taken the leap of choosing a vice president who was not firmly attached to their party. And their experiences suggest that in practice, a fusion ticket is the wrong means to a worthwhile end.

For starters, Obama or McCain would probably see their life insurance premiums soar if they made such a selection. The two previous presidents who choose running mates not clearly identified with their party both died within weeks of taking the oath of office. The aged William Henry Harrison, a Whig elected in 1840, died of pneumonia one month into his term; Abraham Lincoln was assassinated six weeks after his second inauguration in 1865.

Each man's death elevated to the presidency a vice president not solidly committed to the program of the deceased president's party. Over time it turned out that the new president was, in fact, closer to the opposition party in which his roots were planted. Perhaps this should not have been a shock, but in each case it provoked a political civil war.


Harrison's death made a president of Virginian John Tyler, a former governor, senator and House member who was at best a nominal member of the Whig Party, the principal competitor to the Democrats in that era. He joined it largely out of revulsion for Andrew Jackson, the strong-willed Democratic president from 1829 to 1836. The Whig convention of 1840 chose Tyler as vice president solely to achieve sectional balance with Harrison, a northerner. No one thought Tyler's views on issues particularly relevant.

But after Harrison's death, the gap between Tyler and mainstream Whig opinion quickly became glaring. Whigs were the age's government activists: They wanted Washington to stimulate America's economic development with a national bank, a protective tariff and internal improvements like roads and canals; like most Southern Democrats, Tyler championed a minimalist federal role and opposed all of those initiatives. "Tyler had broken with the Democrats, but he was still basically a Democrat at heart -- and that showed immediately," says Princeton University professor Sean Wilentz, a leading historian of 19th-century American politics.

Within Tyler's first two years, he vetoed bank and tariff legislation from the Whig congressional majority. Whigs in the House responded first by adopting a resolution formally excommunicating Tyler from the party. In 1841, all but one member of Tyler's Cabinet resigned; the next year, a House committee approved a report that declared Tyler's behavior worthy of impeachment, but recommended against it only because they believed congressional Democrats would block it, according to Michael F. Holt's authoritative 1999 book, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party.

Relations deteriorated even further in Tyler's final years. With no chance of winning re-nomination by the Whigs in 1844, Tyler hoped to build his own Southern-tilting new party. Partly to enlarge his political base, he tirelessly worked with Southern allies to promote the annexation of Texas, which most Whigs resisted. Through complex legislative maneuvers that extended to the last week of his presidency, Tyler steered annexation through Congress over the nearly unified opposition of the Whig party that had placed him on the national ticket just a few years earlier. When Tyler's hopes of consolidating a new party collapsed, he endorsed the Democratic nominee in the election to succeed him.

If anything, the nation's second fusion ticket proved even more catastrophic. In many respects, Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson initially seemed an attractive vice presidential pick for Lincoln in 1864. Johnson was a pro-Union Democrat: He was the sole Southern senator to oppose secession, and he served as Lincoln's military governor of Tennessee after Ulysses S. Grant captured the state in 1862. In the 1864 election, Johnson provided a powerful symbol of Lincoln's determination to bind the nation's wounds -- and, not incidentally, an attractive electoral calling card in border states that could help decide the election.

But Johnson -- to even a greater extent than Tyler -- remained a Southern Democrat, with all the prejudices that implied. So long as the issue was Union or secession, his views converged with Lincoln and the Republican Party. But when the political debate after Lincoln's assassination turned to Reconstruction -- the terms on which the South would be readmitted into the Union -- Johnson held views antithetical to most Republicans, especially the "Radical Republicans" who pushed most ardently to remake the South and expand rights to the former slaves. "You end up with a guy who is a Jacksonian Democrat," Wilentz said. "He hates the big Southern planters, but he hates the Negroes even more and he hates the Radical Republicans.... He's a racist."

Johnson turned a blind eye to escalating Southern violence against the freed slaves, sought to rapidly readmit Southern states on the most lenient terms (including allowing them to deny the vote to blacks), repeatedly vetoed legislation from congressional Republicans to provide Southern blacks with civil rights and economic opportunity, and even opposed the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing all Americans "equal protection" under the law. Like Tyler, Johnson tried to organize his own political party, but his effort also failed.

In 1868, the Republican House voted to impeach Johnson on the grounds that he violated the restrictive (and possibly unconstitutional) legislation Congress had passed to constrain his actions; the Republican-controlled Senate, recognizing the fragility of the specific charges, failed by a single vote to remove Johnson from office. Johnson survived to intrigue after the Democratic presidential nomination in 1868, but was denied that, too. His repudiation was capped when Grant, who had collided with Johnson in office, won the election to succeed him as the GOP nominee.

The few historical defenders of Tyler and Johnson could argue that each man's program was more in tune with public opinion at the time than the views of the ardent partisans in the party of the president they succeeded. On some issues (the annexation of Texas, voting rights for blacks), that might have been correct. But it didn't change the sense among most of those who supported the deceased president that both men were usurpers who sabotaged the results of the previous election by largely adopting the agenda of the defeated party.

Ultimately, that risk is the disqualifying danger in the fusion ticket idea. If the president dies or is incapacitated in office, it means that the tens of millions of people who vote for him could get stuck with a successor who mostly embraces the priorities of the party they rejected in the election. Hagel or Lieberman, make no mistake, would present exactly that possibility. On Iraq in particular and foreign policy in general, Hagel is now closer to Obama than to McCain; likewise, Lieberman is now closer to McCain than Obama on international concerns. But on domestic issues, a huge gap separates either man from the party he would join in a fusion ticket. In contrast to Obama and most Democrats, Hagel supported the Bush tax cuts, opposed the expansion of the children's health insurance program, backed private accounts under Social Security and takes conservative positions on most social issues. In contrast to most Republicans, Lieberman takes the opposite position on all of those issues. Hagel's lifetime voting rating from the American Conservative Union is 85 percent; Lieberman's, just 17 percent. There is a reason Hagel isn't a Democrat and Lieberman isn't a Republican.

If McCain or Obama want to signal their commitment to national reconciliation, there's a better way to do it. While reaching across party lines to pick a vice president has been disastrous, presidents have generally benefited by appointing Cabinet members and top White House officials from the opposite party. John F. Kennedy named as his treasury secretary Douglas Dillon, who served as Dwight Eisenhower's undersecretary of state. Clinton picked talented Republican Sen. William Cohen as his defense secretary. Richard Nixon fruitfully selected Democratic polymath Daniel Patrick Moynihan as a senior White House domestic policy adviser. Ronald Reagan accelerated the movement of the "neoconservative" intellectuals from the Democratic to Republican Party by picking one of them, the forceful Jeane Kirkpatrick, as his U.N. ambassador. Most dramatically, in the closest example ever to a national unity government, Franklin Roosevelt on the eve of World War II named Henry Stimson, Herbert Hoover's secretary of state, as secretary of war, and Frank Knox, the GOP vice presidential candidate in 1936, as secretary of the Navy.

Cabinet officers and White House advisers from the other party offer a president the opportunity to hear different perspectives and a chance to court new constituencies with very little risk: He can always fire a Cabinet officer who strays too far from his direction. Putting leaders from the other party into the Cabinet is a good way for a president to build bridges; placing a leader from the other party onto the presidential ticket is probably a bridge too far.

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