During the 2016 presidential campaign, John Kasich floated a trial balloon suggesting he would choose a Democrat as his running mate. The Republican presidential candidate indicated that Democratic party affiliation would not “disqualify” an individual for the vice presidency. Whether he was serious or trying to look open minded, history has shown that political disaster followed presidents with vice presidents of the opposite party. On three occasions, presidents entered office with vice presidents from the opposition party. Each time, the presidential faction suffered humiliating setbacks courtesy the former vice presidential running mate. Thomas Jefferson worked to undermine the John Adams Administration from within while John Tyler and Andrew Johnson ascended to the presidency and sabotaged public policy.
In 1796, the president and vice president did not run together on a single ticket. Instead, the Constitution required the Electoral College winner to assume the presidency and the runner-up moves into the vice presidency. The founding fathers did not envision political parties in the equation. John Adams won the first contested election in U.S. history. His opponent, Thomas Jefferson, finished second and therefore won the vice presidency.
As vice president, Jefferson wrote the rules of order for the U.S. Senate, but also worked to undermine Adams. While the president worked to steer the country away from the Franco-British war, Jefferson worked to undermine peace negotiations with France. As relations with France soured, Jefferson opposed Adams’ efforts to build American defenses. The vice president also subsidized opposition newspapers to attack Adams and the Federalist Party. Most importantly, Jefferson and his protege James Madison wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions claiming that states could nullify acts of the federal government. These documents became the basis for secession in 1860, the Civil War, Jim Crow Laws, and opposition to the Obama Administration. Adams secured peace with France despite Jefferson’s meddling and a civil war within his own party, but it cost him the 1800 election.
Adams became a party onto himself when he lost Federalist support and Jefferson turned on him. Forty years later, the newly constituted Whig Party won their first presidential election. Whig leader Henry Clay planned to run the country through President William Henry Harrison. An annoyed Harrison banished Clay from the White House, but died a month into office. Vice President John Tyler declared himself president and created an important precedent. Once again, Clay hoped to be the power behind the throne, but Tyler was an unabashed Jacksonian Democrat. The Whigs invited him onto the ticket to create broad based support for their 1840 campaign. No one envisioned Harrison’s death nor did they conceive the consequences.
President Tyler emerged an independent force. At first, he acceded to Whig orthodoxy when he supported the repeal of the independent treasury and a bill on squatter’s rights. However, he quickly turned on the Whigs by twice vetoing Clay’s bank bill. The bank was the center of Whig economic policy and Tyler defied his party by blocking its reinstatement. In response, Tyler’s entire cabinet except Secretary of State Daniel Webster resigned. Webster was engaged in delegate negotiations and remained in office to complete the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. The pressure did not bother Tyler and he remained in office. The frustrated Whigs excommunicated Tyler from the party. The president and Whigs continued to spar for the remainder of his term. Some even attempted to impeach Tyler, but the effort failed. Later, Tyler attempted to return to the Democratic Party and run for president in 1844. The bemused Democrats turned to Andrew Jackson to rid themselves of Tyler. Jackson convinced Democrats to welcome Tyler back to the party, cease their attacks on him, the president withdrew from the race and endorsed James K. Polk.
Tyler lacked the political skill necessary to succeed at the national level. On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln outmaneuvered all his foes, but made a monumental blunder when he selected Andrew Johnson as his running mate in 1864. Johnson succeeded Lincoln following the assassination. At first, he seemed willing to punish the secessionists and work in concert with the Radical Republicans. However, the Tennessee native displayed no sympathy to the freedmen. Indeed, Johnson believed slavery’s real victims were poor whites. The president despised the planter class and held virulently racist views toward African Americans.
President Johnson hoped to win election in his own right in 1868. His plan involved reintegrating the Confederate states back into the Union as quickly as possible. He ordered the rebel states to hold conventions, disavow slavery, and pass perfunctory reforms. Once completed, they could return to the fold. In response, Confederate leaders won elections throughout the South and the states passed Black Codes to restrict African American rights. Johnson refused to admit failure which limited his options. Rather than work with Congress to reform the petulant South, Johnson obstructed Radical Reconstruction efforts. He opposed the 14th Amendment, vetoed the Freedman Bureau’s recharter, and interfered with the military. In response, Congress impeached Johnson, but the president survived removal. Johnson might be the person most responsible for America’s shoddy race relations, Jim Crow, and a century of oppression.
Although appealing to the other party might make for good politics, mixed administrations have proved problematic. Jefferson undermined Adams, Tyler undermined Clay and the Whigs, and Johnson undermined the Radical Republicans. Jefferson’s efforts helped cost Adams re-election and established the doctrine of secession. Tyler’s apostasy cost the Whig ascendancy, Clay’s best chance to leave an economic legislative imprint on Antebellum America, and left the president a man without a party. Johnson’s Administration led to the eventual collapse of Reconstruction and segregation. In the end, a loyal vice president of the same political party ensures stability and less rancor.