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What is Edwards running for?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, May 3, 2004

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Is John Edwards running for vice president?

That question, which is always on the minds of North Carolina political observers, came back into the news last week. The North Carolina Democratic Party announced officially that Edwards won 57 delegates to the party’s national convention. Also, Edwards traveled to South Carolina where he got a warm welcome from Democrats in the state where he was born and where he won his only primary victory.

John Edwards is still running for president--just not in 2004.

Neither of these stories would have gotten much notice if Edwards were not still running for something.

So, is Edwards running for vice president?

The answer is “no.”

John Edwards is still running for president--just not in 2004.

Becoming the Democratic nominee for vice president, and perhaps being elected to that office in November, might be a steppingstone to his objective. But his eye is on the bigger prize.

By the way, it is not certain that the vice presidency is a good place from which to run for the highest office. Vice President George Bush, the elder, was elected president. Al Gore almost did it. But, before them, you have to go back to Martin Van Buren, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, to find sitting vice presidents who were elected presidents.

Several recent vice presidents did become president--but not by election. Teddy Roosevelt, Cal Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson became president upon the death of the President. Gerald Ford, when Richard Nixon resigned. Nixon, who lost the presidency when he was a sitting vice president, later won the office by beating Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey.

Former vice presidents, other than Nixon, have not had much luck winning the presidency. Walter Mondale, who had been Jimmy Carter’s vice president, lost to Ronald Reagan in 1984. Former Vice President Dan Quayle failed to get his party’s nomination. Henry Wallace (Roosevelt’s vice president before Harry Truman) ran unsuccessfully as a third party candidate in 1948. Truman’s vice president, Alben Barkley, was an unsuccessful candidate for his party’s nomination in 1952.

What about the Joe Liebermans of presidential history? Does it help to be the vice presidential nominee on a losing ticket? Not in Lieberman’s case. Nor did it lead to success for Ed Muskie, Hubert Humphrey’s vice presidential running mate in 1968. Muskie lost the Democratic nomination in 1972.

Although Bob Dole lost to Bill Clinton in 1996, his place on Gerald Ford’s loosing ticket in 1976 probably helped him gain a national platform from which he finally gained his party’s presidential nomination 20 years later.

Only once did a vice presidential nomination on a losing ticket serve as a steppingstone to a later successful presidential candidacy. Who was that candidate? It is a test question for you. See the answer at the end of this column.

Given the lack of success of vice presidents winning election to the presidency, would it have been better for Edwards to keep his senate seat--and continue his run for the presidency from that office? Maybe, but the record of sitting U.S. senators getting elected to the presidency is almost as bad as sitting vice presidents. If John Kerry wins in November he would be the first incumbent senator since John Kennedy in 1960, who was the first since Warren Harding in 1920.

Many senators have tried for the presidency, too many to mention them all. Senators Goldwater (1964), McGovern (1972), and Dole (1996) managed to win their party’s nomination, only to lose the general election. Countless other senators have tried and failed even to win their party’s nomination--including powerhouses like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Russell. And this year: Lieberman, Graham, and, of course, John Edwards.

If Edwards is “out of office,” can he continue his campaign for president? It is possible. Jimmy Carter (1976) and Richard Nixon (1968) were only “former officeholders” when they mounted successful presidential campaigns.

There are no sure, or necessary, steppingstones to the presidency--neither the senate, nor a vice presidential nomination. Edwards will find his way into the public eye over the next four (and eight) years whether or not he is the nominee for vice president.

Lest we forget, there was one unsuccessful campaign for a vice presidential nomination that led directly to a later successful presidential campaign. In 1956, rather than choosing his running mate, the Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson, opened the contest for the convention delegates to decide. A young, attractive, first-term senator from Massachusetts mounted a campaign that, while ultimately losing, introduced him to the nation as a charismatic alternative to the “old politics.” Four years later Jack Kennedy was elected President.

This “Kennedy” path to the Presidency might be what Edwards is trying to find.

Answer to this week’s test question: Franklin Roosevelt was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1920 on the ticket led by James Cox. They lost to the Republican Harding-Coolidge ticket. Here is another test question: What are the names of two North Carolina natives who were elected vice president? Answer next week.


D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch, which will return to the air later this year.

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