VP has again become a position of power

Sunday, Aug 10, 2008 - 12:30 AM
    Long considered one of the most useless jobs in politics, the vice presidency may have been designed by the Constitutional Convention as the second-most prestigious job in the U.S. government, but the position quickly became a laughingstock. Now, as shown by Vice President Dick Cheney's unprecedented exercise of decision-making power and the fact that seven of the past 10 vice presidents have won their party's nomination for the presidency, the position has reclaimed its mantle of importance. Even though the effect of a vice-presidential choice on the outcome of any election is debatable, the changes in the power and influence of the vice president make the selection of a running mate critical for the country.
    While there has been much criticism of Cheney exercising too much power, the resurgence of the vice presidency is a welcome change. It gives the country the benefits of productive employment from its only other nationally elected leader, as well as the knowledge that its potential commander-in-chief can step in, if needed. If it maintains a power position, it allows voters to get a full vetting of a key presidential aide, something that does not happen with the usual presidential gurus.
    Given all of the benefits of a powerful VP, why did the vice presidency fall into disrepute and how did it come charging back to a position of influence? The position was not created to help balance an election ticket, nor was it intended to provide the president a surrogate for state funerals. Rather, it was an almost-accidental afterthought.
    Under the rules of the original Constitution, each presidential elector was granted two equally weighted votes, which could not be cast for candidates from the same state. In order to make the second vote meaningful, the person who finished second would be the vice president. If the president were to be the best person for the job, then the vice president should be the second-most-capable person. What the constitutional conventioneers hadn't intended was that political parties would quickly reshape electoral politics.
    By the fourth national election in 1800, the nascent party system exposed the design flaw. A tie vote between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr resulted in the House of Representatives deciding the presidency. After his victory, Jefferson's Republicans passed the 12th Amendment, which required a separate vote for the president and vice president. Stripped of its original position as a job for the runner-up for the presidency, the vice presidency fell into obscurity.
    Without its prestige, a mostly motley collection of third-tier politicos were chosen for the No. 2 job, primarily to gain convention support for the presidential candidate.
    The rehabilitation of the office began with Harry Truman, who assumed the presidency in the waning days of World War II with almost no preparation for the immense job before him. Truman saw to it that Alben Barkley, his vice president after 1948, would be at least somewhat prepared, and he made the VP a member of the National Security Council. Subsequent presidents have added substantially to the vice president's portfolio. This has reached its apex first with Al Gore, who was extremely active on serious policy matters, and then with Cheney, who has been cited and criticized as turning the position into a prime-ministry role.
    However, the reasons for the resurgence involve more than good policy. Political considerations and changes in how we elect presidents play the major role. Previously, state leaders and machine bosses decided who would be the parties' nominees, frequently in the back rooms of political conventions. The vice president would then be an addendum, usually a sop to the losing side.
    In recent years, this system has been overthrown. Candidates can choose their own running mates. In order to win more support for their presidential run, the nominees look for the best way to increase their own appeal. The result has been a generally better mix of candidates, many of whom would be considered presidential contenders in their own right.
    The resurgence of the office is a positive development for our government. An active, engaged VP can step into the leadership of the country if the situation arises -- even more critical in a world rife with terrorism. Critics have attacked Cheney for usurping power from the president. These assaults, and their implicit criticism of the active VP, miss the mark. Powerful individuals are often seen as controlling the president, be it Cabinet members, the White House staff, or political gurus such as Karl Rove (for Bush) or Dick Morris (for President Clinton). In contrast to these unelected power players, the vice president has been approved by the people and is clearly chosen by the president even before he is elected.
    Looking back at the little-respected vice presidents of the past, some of whom ended up running the country, it seems a shame that a position of such prominence has been wasted.
    Let's hope that future presidents continue to make use of the only other person elected to national office. It's a wise move for them -- and for the country.
    Joshua Spivak, a public relations executive and attorney, is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York City.