The Power of the Vice Presidency

By Frank Blechman

This coming week, presumptive Democratic nominee for President Joe Biden will announce his eagerly awaited selection for a running mate. The media and many political watchers will immediately analyze and interpret his pick as an indication of his philosophy, both for the upcoming campaign and his administration. Will he remain “middle of the road Joe?” or will he express a promise to fulfill every progressive dream?

So, we have to ponder, “How much difference does a choice of VP make?” Only the nerdiest of political junkies can rattle off the names of the VPs who served in their lifetime, much less the entire list. What can you report about Daniel Thompkins (1817-24), Richard Johnson (1837-41), William Wheeler (1877-81), or Garrett Hobart (1897-99)? Should I even mention unsuccessful VP candidates?

Nonetheless, ask John Tyler, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, or Lyndon Johnson this question and each would surely answer that the choice made a tremendous difference to them since they became President on the death of their ticket-mate. Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, and Calvin Coolidge would agree for the same reason. In contrast, John Nance (Cactus Jack) Garner, FDR’s VP from 1933-41, famously said that the office “wasn’t worth a bucket of warm ____ (something or other, scholars demur)”.

Historians have generally concluded that since the adoption of the twelfth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1804 (which created joint presidential/VP “tickets” as we know them today), the selection has rarely been consequential in determining the outcome of a presidential campaign.

Historians have generally concluded that since the adoption of the twelfth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1804 (which created joint presidential/VP “tickets” as we know them today), the selection has rarely been consequential in determining the outcome of a presidential campaign. Throughout the 19th century, neither presidential nor vice-presidential candidates campaigned in the modern sense. They did not travel or make widely publicized speeches, although some wrote pamphlets or issued statements circulated by supporters. Of course, there was no national media of any kind (no wire service, radio, or TV) to amplify candidates in ways that became common in the 20th century.

Vice-presidential nominee Teddy Roosevelt broke the mold in 1900 when he used railroad whistle stops to make hundreds of speeches for William McKinley. After that, the campaign role of the VP as the electoral “attack dog” grew gradually, formalizing by mid-century. Nonetheless, VPs had few formal duties beyond presiding in the US Senate to break a tie, cutting ribbons, and attending foreign funerals. Harry Truman played such a small role after his election as VP for FDR’s fourth term that, when he became President upon FDR’s death, he was briefed for the first time about the atomic bomb project, and confronted immediately with the decision whether to use it.

Some VPs, chosen for geographic balance on a ticket, have worked their home regions hard, and claimed some credit for the ticket’s ultimate success. LBJ certainly believed he swung Texas for JFK in 1960, although his boasting earned him no appreciation in the liberal media or within the Kennedy administration.

The role of vice president only began to change in 1977, when Jimmy Carter assigned Walter Mondale significant roles overseeing parts of domestic policy. Since then, presidents have tried to give their VPs some formal administrative responsibilities . . . with the implication that the VP would at least be a significant insider and close adviser to the President, as well as defender and trial-balloon flyer.

I don’t think it is unfair to say that the role of vice president only began to change in 1977 when Jimmy Carter assigned Walter Mondale significant roles overseeing parts of domestic policy. Since then, presidents have tried to give their VPs some formal administrative responsibilities (for example, VP Pence currently chairs the National Coronavirus Task Force) with the implication that the VP would at least be a significant insider and close adviser to the President, as well as defender and trial-balloon flyer.

The problem is that no matter whom Biden picks as his running mate, many will be unsatisfied. Praise and criticism will be equal in measure, tempering any great surge of enthusiasm.

Nonetheless, for the next few days, tea-leaf readers will have their field day explaining the importance of the VP choice. I’ll watch with amusement. I will take the matter much more seriously if the announcement actually defines the role Biden wants his VP to play beyond the campaign. If not, we’ll all have to wait and see what events and the fates bring.

 

 



Categories: elections, Issues, Local, National, politics

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