Dispatch September 2008

The "Eagleton Scenario"

Could Sarah Palin become the first running mate since Thomas Eagleton in 1972 to be dropped from a major-party ticket? Joshua Green offers a look at how such a scenario would unfold.
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Barring a dramatic reversal, Sarah Palin will formally become the Republican vice presidential nominee Wednesday night. Since Friday, when the pick was announced, news surrounding Palin has been almost uniformly negative: the initial focus on her lack of experience quickly gave way to reports of her involvement in the Troopergate scandal, the “Bridge to Nowhere” earmark, an Alaskan separatist party, a 527 group organized by recently indicted Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, and, on Labor Day, her teenage daughter’s pregnancy.

Also see:

What McCain Didn't Know About Sarah Palin (August 31, 2008)
And why he probably would have picked her anyway. By Marc Ambinder

Here in St. Paul, talk of Palin has dominated the Republican convention—even more so than cable news—and by Monday night discussion among Republican operatives and reporters had turned to whether Palin would survive or become the first running mate since Thomas Eagleton in 1972 to leave a major-party ticket. On Monday, the InTrade futures market opened trading on whether Palin would withdraw before the election.

With reporters and opposition researchers crawling through Alaska, and with the McCain campaign having dispatched its own team of lawyers to re-vet Palin, Republicans are wondering what shoe might drop next. If further revelations prove damaging enough, McCain could decide to replace Palin or she could choose to withdraw. While such an event seems unlikely given her popularity in some quarters of the party—Jacob Heilbrunn has suggested that social conservatives would view her ouster as “political infidelity”—her rocky reception makes the “Eagleton scenario,” and how it might unfold, a subject of more than academic interest.

Interviews with Republicans and legal experts today shed light on how the process could play out. At any point before tomorrow night, McCain could simply replace Palin. But once she formally accepts her nomination, he’ll no longer have the power to do so unilaterally. According to Ben Ginsberg, the former general council at the Republican National Committee, Republican rules stipulate that the 168 members of the national committee would need to ratify any replacement to make it official. The process falls under Republican Rule Number 9(a): “The Republican National Committee is hereby authorized and empowered to fill any and all vacancies which may occur by reason of death, declination, or otherwise of the Republican candidate for President of the United States or the Republican candidate for Vice President of the United States, as nominated by the national convention, or the Republican National Committee may reconvene the national convention for the purpose of filling any such vacancies.”

Ginsberg hastened to add that such a vote would almost certainly be a formality. “The members of the Republican national committee would be overwhelmingly inclined to follow the wishes of the nominee in any situation in which this rule got invoked, unless it were someone completely outside the mainstream of the Republican Party,” he said. With their experience in the national spotlight, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty would be two obvious replacements. One possibility that might provoke opposition would be a pro-choice candidate, such as Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, reportedly on McCain’s short list until the prospect of a floor fight with conservative delegates convinced him to select Palin.

Further controversy could arise if multiple nominations were submitted. The rules state that a majority of votes is required to win the VP nod, but do not stipulate how a replacement would be chosen if a vote split among multiple nominees failed to produce a majority. “There would still be some details to fill in,” Ginsberg acknowledged.

The history of Missouri Senator Eagleton’s selection in 1972 and the 18 days he spent as George McGovern’s running mate has some striking parallels to the current campaign—and not all of them to Palin.

Just as Palin is reported to have been, Eagleton was a last-minute selection and not the candidate’s first choice. “At the 1972 convention, McGovern was facing a battle to hold onto the California delegation,” says Joel K. Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University School of Law and expert on the vice presidency who co-taught a course with Eagleton. “It wasn’t clear until the second or third day that he would keep California and be nominated, so it wasn’t until late in day three that he started focusing on the vice presidency.” Eagleton asked Ted Kennedy, who declined, as did Walter Mondale, Abe Ribicoff, Gaylord Nelson, and several others. “Like Palin, Eagleton had been mentioned, but was considered such an unlikely choice that he went to the convention without his press secretary. The McGovern camp had picked up rumors of possible health issues, but they never went to Eagleton and asked. Instead, they approached reporters from St. Louis papers—the local media—and asked them. There was really no serious vetting process.”

McGovern called Eagleton late in the afternoon, for a conversation that was recorded (Eagleton’s side of it) by a radio reporter who happened to be in the room. After Eagleton accepted, McGovern handed the phone to an aide, Frank Mankiewicz, who asked if he “had any skeletons.” Though Eagleton’s reply was not recorded, Goldstein says, he presumably said no. Within days, however, reporters got word that Eagleton had received shock treatments for depression. “Eagleton had been hospitalized a few times, years before, for depression,” Goldstein explained. “I think his view was that ‘skeletons' referred to something he had done wrong, and that this wasn’t a skeleton, but a medical problem that had been resolved.”

With the story percolating, Goldstein says, Eagleton informed McGovern, and then announced the news of his psychiatric history at a press conference. McGovern initially declared that he stood behind his vice president “1000 percent.” But the “feeding frenzy that ensued,” Goldstein says, worried many Democratic donors and strategists, and McGovern ultimately changed his mind. Eighteen days after selecting Eagleton, McGovern asked him to withdraw from the ticket, Eagleton obliged, and the Democratic National Committee, in accordance with party rules, eventually replaced him with Sargent Shriver.

“Ultimately it’s a political judgment,” Goldstein says, “and McGovern has since said that he may have made a mistake. [ed note: Though McGovern did not elaborate in a New York Times op-ed on the pick last week.] Eagleton was a real gem, a great public servant and human being.” Furthermore, says Goldstein, the candidate he most resembles isn’t Sarah Palin. As an alumnus of the Harvard Law Review, who won fast acclaim in the Senate, he says, “Eagleton really was an Obama-like figure in the sense of being an enormously able person who, just four years into his first Senate term, landed on the ticket.”

The closest historical precedent to Palin, he says, is Dan Quayle. “The vice presidents that were the two biggest surprises were Senator Quayle and Governor Palin, and for much the same reason,” he says. “President [George H.W.] Bush insisted on secrecy in an effort to create the biggest impact with the announcement.” But the campaign botched the rollout and didn’t properly prepare Quayle, Goldstein says, citing James Baker’s recent memoir, Work Hard, Study...and Keep Out of Politics!

Indeed, Baker’s description of the lessons he learned from the Quayle announcement seems eerily prescient:

“The best way to handle a proposed vice presidential nominee who has not been tested in national or big-state politics or high appointive office—and I have the obvious benefit of hindsight—is to float the name a few weeks before the convention and let the games begin. By opening gavel, the candidate will have run the gauntlet of press scrutiny or opposition research, or have dropped out. This approach wouldn’t necessarily work in a contested convention, and, unfortunately, it eliminates the drama of dropping the name at the convention. But it would pretty well guarantee that the news from the convention would not be dominated by questions about the vice presidential selection.”

Baker declined an interview request.

Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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