The Veepstakes: Who Cares?

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The other day Pat Archbold wrote a post lamenting that Condoleeza Rice may be positioning herself for a run at the Vice Presidential nomination.  Though I agree with Patrick that she would be an unacceptable choice, it’s probably nothing to worry about.  Frankly it just seemed as though the Washington Times was attempting to make a story out of nothing.

It did prompt me to think about the attention that gets paid to Vice Presidential selections.  What I concluded was that this decision is generally inconsequential, and it’s foolish to determine one’s vote based on this selection.

John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:

My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived; and as I can do neither good nor evil, I must be borne away by others and meet the common fate.

For nearly 200 years the Vice President was barely a footnote – except of course when he succeeded a dying (or in one case, a resigning) president.  Arguably the first Vice President to have any substantial impact within a presidential administration was Al Gore.  He was succeeded in office by Dick Cheney, a man who was possibly even more influential than Gore.

We have experienced a return to normalcy with Joe Biden, a man whose main qualification as Vice President seems to be that he makes the president look competent by comparison.  Assassination insurance?  Perhaps.  Biden is about as important to his administration as all but two of his predecessors – meaning, not at all.

I think the experience of sixteen uninterrupted years of powerful Vice Presidents has masked the utter insignificance of the office.   What’s noticeable about the Gore and Cheney years is that they are two of the few Vice Presidential selections that weren’t motivated by a desire to provide either ideological or regional balance to the ticket.  Most selections have been grounded in a desire to grab the votes of a certain state or region (ie. LBJ), or to sway members of the party base (Quayle, Kemp, Palin, etc).  Yet Gore, like Clinton, was a southern politician belonging (at the time, anyway) to the DLC faction of the party – a more moderate group of Democrats.  Cheney represented a small, midwestern state that was voting Republican anyway.  His selection had more to do with adding a little gravitas to the ticket than with ideology, though I suppose Cheney could be considered more traditionally conservative than George W Bush. (Which is incidentally why, when it was suggested that Cheney actually ran the administration, my retort was “I wish.”)

So two of the rare times when the Vice Presidential selection added little electorally to the ticket were the two times that the Vice President was more than just a figurehead. And it makes sense.  If the President and Vice President are ideologically divergent, clearly the former is going to have more sway, and the latter is not going to matter much in the long-run.  Gore and Clinton were of the same mind on most matters, so Gore got to play a more important role in the administration.  Cheney and Bush were also largely on the same page, and in fact when Cheney started expressing more concerns with the policy direction of the White House his role in the government was (by reports) diminished.

While the selection of, say, a conservative running mate to a more moderate presidential nominee is meant to assuage conservatives, the reality is that said running mate will – based on the historical evidence – be of little or no consequence to the administration.

Then again, the Vice President could become president in the blink of an eye.  This has in fact happened nine times in our history.  But voting for someone because he might die and therefore his more acceptable running mate will succeed him – well, that’s an odd strategic decision.  It’s also an historically iffy gamble.  We went 52 years before our first in-term succession (Harrison to Tyler), and we are currently in the midst of a ninth consecutive term completed by a president without incident.  All nine of our successions happened in a 135 year window – meaning we went, on average, 3.5 terms completed without incident.

Long story short, while the Vice Presidential selection is not exactly inconsequential, there’s really no reason to give it as much weight as we do when judging the actual presidential nominees.

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  1. That’s probably fair analysis about how similar ideology leads to greater influence But I have little confidence in reports about who really carries weight in an administration. You don’t hear many insiders claiming responsibility for failures or saying that they had nothing to do with successes.

    Additionally, what do we mean by impact? LBJ probably didn’t talk Kennedy into anything, but handled the dealings with Congress. It’s been pretty common in recent history for a governor-turned-President to have an insider VP. Anyway, those are my first few thoughts. I’ll be interested to see where this discussion goes.

  2. Pinky, I was mainly thinking about having an actual impact on administration decision-making, but I hadn’t really considered other things like Congressional influence. That’s a good qualifier.

  3. I think Gerald Ford had Nelson Rockefeller supervise the Domestic Policy staff at the White House and put him in charge of one very consequential commission of inquiry. Ford suggested at a later date that optimal use of the vice president would be as a chief of staff.

    Why not eliminate the position, or replace it with a set of appointive vice presidents?

  4. What Ford said makes sense, although maybe the skills you’d look for in a Chief of Staff are different than those of a potential President. But does any candidate think about their VP as anything more than an election-season tactic? Maybe Clinton and W did, which is what makes their cases unique. And Paul, the main function of a veep seems to be to go to formal international events and not cause problems – which makes our current vice-president an interesting choice, to put it mildly.

  5. I think the duties of the VP are daily to inquire as to the health of the Pres, and to attend state funerals. Otherwise, he’s the president of the Senate and casts a vote if there is a deadlock.

    Don’t trust my memory. It’s a long time since I was in high school. However, in those days they taught facts not ideology.

    They chose Blithering Joe Biden either because he could deliver the Electoral College votes of Delaware; or because they were fairly assured that he would make the zero look like a super star.

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