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John Edwards, Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Joe Biden, Aaron Burr, . . .

- September 20, 2009

What does this gang of political punchlines have in common? They were all major-party nominees for Vice President. Presidents and presidential candidates, by comparison, don’t seem so wacky. There was Nixon, but he counts in the vice-presidential ledger too. And there have been failed presidencies (Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush), but these dudes aren’t political jokes along the lines of John Edwards.

What’s going on here? Some possible explanations:

1. I’m not doing a careful historical study. If you list all the pres and vp nominations over the past century, say, you’ll find that the vp nominees are as a sober and reasonable bunch as the guys at the top of the ticket.

2. Just the fact of being president, not to mention what they do in office, bestows an air of seriousness. For example, had Bill Clinton lost in 1992, perhaps he’d be considered a Gennifer Flowers-sized joke. But, since he won, he’s evaluated on the accomplishments of his presidency. Conversely, Geraldine Ferraro is now little more than a political joke, but had she become president, she’d be bestowed a retroactive seriousness. And, if Aaron Burr had been president, maybe he would’ve been too busy to go around shooting people.

3. Presidential nominees really are vetted more closely–by other politicians and by the voters–whereas vp nominees are chosen pretty arbitrarily. For example, it’s hard to take Joe Biden seriously as leader of the free world, but he was considered good enough for the placeholder role of Democratic politico.

Whatever is going on, the contrast is pretty striking to me.