Paul Ryan and the problem with losing

Like myriad candidates before him, Paul Ryan is learning how damaging being part of a failed ticket can really be

Published March 13, 2013 4:54PM (EDT)

What was most striking about the unveiling of Paul Ryan's latest budget blueprint on Tuesday was how familiar it felt. Here was the chairman of the House Budget Committee for the third time in three years offering a dramatic reimagining of the size and scope of the federal government, with plans for deep tax cuts slanted heavily toward the rich, the voucherization of Medicare, and a thinning of the safety net. In the spring of 2011 and 2012, Ryan put forward similar plans, which his House Republican colleagues quickly pushed through the chamber only to watch them die in the Senate. And now, with a few politically cynical tweaks, the annual ritual is once again being observed.

In terms of Ryan's political standing, there are two ways of looking at this. On the plus side, he remains a very relevant figure in Washington and in his party. On the downside, you'd never know that just a few months ago he was the nominee of a major political party for the second most powerful office in America. Watching his latest budget rollout, there's no evidence Ryan enjoys any additional clout or stature thanks to his vice-presidential campaign. He's playing the same role he played before Mitt Romney drafted him onto the GOP ticket last summer. In fact, if his V.P. bid is affecting him now, it's probably a net-negative, with some in the press taking a more critical view of his plans than in the past.

Consider Ryan the latest cautionary tale about winning the Veepstakes.

When the No. 2 slot on their party's ticket opens, dozens of nationally ambitious pols angle for consideration (while, of course, doing their best not to make it look like they're angling for consideration). Their instinct is understandable. It's a campaign for an audience of one, and if you manage to succeed and then win in November, your chances of ultimately becoming president will be radically enhanced. The V.P. is, of course, next in line in the event a president dies or resigns, a path to the Oval Office that nine vice presidents have made in U.S. history. Two-term vice presidents are also generally well-positioned to win their party's next open presidential nomination -- as Al Gore and George H.W. Bush did in the recent past, and as Joe Biden (who would never have been mentioned in any 2016 conversation if Barack Obama hadn't made him his V.P. nominee in 2008) could do in three years. Even one-term vice presidents can get a leg up. Would Walter Mondale have been the primary season heavyweight he was in 1984 without his four-year stint as Jimmy Carter's veep?

But when a V.P. candidate is on a losing ticket in the fall, it's a different story. Few losing V.P. candidates in the modern era have walked away with their reputations and future political prospects significantly enhanced, and some have even been damaged by their turn on the national stage. Here's a look at the company that Ryan joined when he and Romney lost last November:

Sargent Shriver (ran with George McGovern in 1972)

Shriver, a Kennedy family in-law who had started the Peace Corps under JFK, stepped in when McGovern's initial V.P. pick, Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton was pressured off the ticket after revelations that he'd been treated for depression with electroshock therapy. The Democratic Party of 1972 was deeply fractured and the McGovern-Eagleton ticket never stood a chance, losing 49 states on Election Day. Shriver sought to parlay the experience into a White House bid four years later, but he gained little traction and was even ignored by the Kennedy family. His stint as a V.P. candidate didn't really hurt him, but it didn't help him either.

Bob Dole (ran with Gerald Ford in 1976)

Dole, then a second-term Kansas senator, was chosen by Ford at the 1976 GOP convention in Kansas City thanks to a recommendation from Ronald Reagan, who had nearly stolen the presidential nomination from the incumbent. Because 1976 was the first time that a vice-presidential debate was held, Dole was an unusually visible No. 2 candidate. But his televised showdown with Mondale was something close to a disaster, with the scowling Kansan ticking off the death totals from World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam -- all "Democrat wars," he told Americans. "I think," Mondale replied, "that Mr. Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man." Ford closed the race strong and nearly caught Carter, losing 297-241 in the Electoral College. Fair or not, blaming Dole for the outcome became fashionable in Republican circles, and when Dole ran for the presidency in 1980, he got absolutely nowhere, finishing with less than 1,000 votes in New Hampshire. He might have done better if he'd never said "yes" to Ford.

Geraldine Ferraro (ran with Mondale, 1984)

Running far behind Reagan, Mondale decided to use his V.P. choice to make a bold statement, ultimately anointing Ferraro, then a third-term congresswoman from Queens, as the first female ever nominated for national office by a major party. But questions about Ferraro and her husband's finances created a major distraction, one that finally led the candidate to hold a press conference at which she presented her financial records in exhaustive detail. She performed decently in her debate with George H.W. Bush (where she memorably took Bush to task for his "patronizing" attitude toward her), but with the economy surging the campaign was a lost cause for Democrats. In a way, the experience was a positive for Ferraro, since it made her something of a celebrity; she found work after the campaign cutting an ad for Diet Pepsi.

But it did nothing to boost her political prospects. There was little clamoring for her to run for president in 1988 and she bowed out of consideration early. Then, in 1992, she attempted a comeback, running for U.S. Senate in New York. She started out the favorite in that race, but lost an ugly primary to state Attorney General Bob Abrams. Ferraro landed on "Crossfire" for a few years after that before taking one more stab at politics, a 1998 Senate campaign that ended with a blowout loss to Chuck Schumer in the Democratic primary.

It's unfair to say that running for V.P. hurt Ferraro, since it did earn her a place in history and give her a lucrative career outside of elected politics. But she never won another election, or even another primary, after '84. It's also worth wondering where her career might have gone had she stayed in the House in '84. Ferraro was a favorite of then-House Speaker Tip O'Neill and served as what was then called caucus secretary (the position is now called caucus vice-chairman). When Mondale tapped her, she had been planning to run against Dick Gephardt for caucus chairman after the '84 election. With O'Neill's support, she might well have won that race, which might then have put her on course to become the top Democrat in the House.

Lloyd Bentsen (ran with Michael Dukakis, 1988)

This is the only modern example of a vice-presidential candidate who emerged from a losing campaign with his reputation and political prospects enhanced -- dramatically. Bentsen was a Texas Democrat when Dukakis, hoping to stir memories of the old Boston-Austin axis of the JFK/LBJ years, asked him to join his ticket. The Democratic ticket lost the election badly, but no one blamed Bentsen, who walked away as a breakout national political star -- all because of a debate line that will live for ages to come:

In the run-up to the 1992 campaign, as one big-name Democrat after another begged off, there were calls from some in the party for Bentsen, then 71, to run. He refused, and it may have been for the best, since his conservative record probably wouldn't have gone over well with primary voters once they were exposed to it. But Bentsen was a natural choice for Treasury secretary when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, a post he held for two years before retiring from politics.

Jack Kemp (ran with Bob Dole, 1996)

Kemp's star within the Republican Party had been bright in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was the preeminent apostle for supply-side economics. Reagan had wanted to make Kemp his V.P. in 1980, but the need to make peace with the moderate wing forced the Gipper to go with Bush, who had upset him in several primaries that spring. Kemp stayed in the House during the Reagan years then proclaimed himself the president's rightful heir and sought the 1988 GOP nomination. But his campaign never got off the ground -- Bush had exercised the powers of the vice president shrewdly and won over many of the conservatives Kemp was counting on -- and he settled for a spot in Bush's Cabinet. When Clinton took over in 1993, Kemp seemed a natural candidate for 1996, and he began making the moves White House aspirants make. But he backed off after the 1994 midterms, perhaps because of the angry response his opposition to California Proposition 187 (which sought to ban illegal immigrants from using public services) generated among national conservative leaders.

This was the backdrop for Dole's surprise decision in the summer of '96 to make Kemp his running mate. It was an awkward pairing; Dole, an old deficit hawk, had never had much use for Kemp and the supply-side wing. But Dole was losing badly to Clinton and wanted to roll the dice. So he embraced Kemp's tax-cutting fervor and ran on a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut. The idea gained no traction, though, and the ticket went nowhere. By '96, voters had come back around to Clinton. By October, conservatives were loudly agitating for Dole and Kemp to attack the president's character. But when the question was raised at the start of the V.P. debate, Kemp emphasized that he saw Clinton and Al Gore as opponents, not enemies, and that it would be "beneath Bob Dole to go after anyone personally." The right seethed, Dole and Kemp lost in a landslide, and Kemp returned to the political wilderness. No one ever talked up a Kemp 2000 campaign.

Joe Lieberman (ran with Al Gore, 20000)

Gore's idea in choosing the Connecticut senator in 2000 was to create distance from Bill Clinton, whom Lieberman had famously chastised on the Senate floor for his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. It's probably unfair to call Lieberman a conservative Democrat, but he did hold several positions that put him to the right of the Democratic Party consensus -- so much that he'd run with the National Review's support in his initial Senate bid in 1988. Lieberman's performance as  Gore's running mate irritated Democrats on several occasions. He was widely considered the loser in his debate with Dick Cheney, and he undercut the Democratic legal team's strategy during the Florida recount by publicly ruling out contesting any military ballots. When he ran for president in 2004, Lieberman failed to build significant support; his unwavering support for the Iraq war, which was rapidly losing favor with Democrats, haunted him -- and served as a prelude to his defeat in the 2006 Connecticut Democratic Senate primary. By 2008, he was traveling the country with John McCain, and if McCain had had his way, he would have ended up in the No. 2 slot on the Republican ticket. In the wake of that election, Lieberman returned to the Senate and recognized that there was no viable path to reelection in 2012 and retired.

John Edwards (ran with John Kerry, 2004)

Let's just leave the scandal that broke after Edwards' two presidential candidacies aside for now. In terms of his political career, it makes sense that he said "yes" to Kerry in '04. At the time, the odds of beating George W. Bush were decent, and if Edwards had landed in the vice presidency, it would have been a major boost for his career. But, of course, the Kerry-Edwards ticket lost, and the experience ended up being something of an albatross for Edwards. First, there was his debate performance against Dick Cheney, which (as with Lieberman's four years earlier) frustrated many Democrats. Then there was his 2008 strategy. When the '04 race was over, Edwards immediately began positioning himself for the next presidential race. His strategy was, essentially, to co-opt the Howard Dean wing of the party and to become the left's default alternative to Hillary Clinton. Given Clinton's vulnerabilities on Iraq, a war she'd voted to authorize, Edwards in 2005 and 2006 turned hard against the war, recanting his original support for it and portraying himself as a plain-spoken political outsider. It's hard to remember now, but his shtick actually seemed to be working fairly well -- until Barack Obama suddenly got interested in the race. After that, Edwards never really had a chance. His success in the early days of the '08 cycle, though, came in spite of his presence on the '04 ticket -- not because of it.

Sarah Palin (ran with John McCain, 2008)

Here's the thing: There's probably nothing better that's ever happened to Palin than being plucked from obscurity to join the '08 GOP ticket. She became a national celebrity, amassed a devoted following, and emerged from the campaign with an endless stream of lucrative commercial opportunities. The money she's made and the lifestyle she's been able to afford for the last four years is a far cry from where she'd be if she'd stuck around the Alaska Statehouse. That said, her erratic performance as a candidate unnerved many in her party and probably cost the ticket some votes. While there was certainly plenty of talk in the wake of the '08 race about a Palin presidential campaign in 2012, there was never any movement toward her by the party's donor and opinion-shaping classes. They had seen her in action during the race (and continued to see her in action after it) and concluded that she lacked some very basic traits required in a national political leader. Palin's political relevance has steadily faded over the last few years. She doesn't seem to have a future in politics, unless she decides to return to Alaska and try her hand there again. Because of how radically being the No. 2 candidate changed her life, her case is a tricky one. But in terms of her political prospects, it really didn't help.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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