A look back and ahead to the No. 2 job

DECEMBER 23, 2008
Future vice presidents will not go back to obscurity
    It’s rare to have constitutional policy debate during a presidential transition period, but Dick Cheney and Joe Biden have decided to have a parting public squabble about the role of the vice president.
    Though most of outgoing Vice President Cheney’s controversial legal arguments — that the vice president, as both a member of the legislative and executive branch may be above some laws — will probably be tossed out by future administrations, Vice President-elect Biden would probably agree with one unstated central point — the vice president will remain an important power in the future. While they may not exercise as much influence as Cheney did, future vice presidents will not be going back to irrelevance.
    From a purely constitutional and legal perspective, this may be a surprise. After all, little has changed. According to the constitution, the vice president still does not have much to do. He presides over the Senate, provides a tie breaking vote on the fairly rare instance that the Senate is deadlocked, and basically waits around as long as the president is still functioning.
    And for much of U.S. history, this was all that the vice president did. There were rare exceptions. Martin Van Buren, the “Little Magician” had Andrew Jackson’s ear and respect, and consequently was the last pre-World War II vice president to receive his party’s nomination for the presidency without moving to the presidency through death.
    William McKinley’s first vice president, the all-but-forgotten Garret Hobart, was actually one the president’s key advisors, and was given the nickname the “Assistant President.” But those are two of the most prominent exceptions to the rule — the vice president did so little that Teddy Roosevelt, Hobart’s replacement after he died midterm, was specifically put in the job to kill his political career. Of course, nobody counted on McKinley’s assassination. The lack of respect for vice presidents was so great that Roosevelt was actually the first vice president to get promoted to the top job via a death of a president to win an election in his own right.
    Part of the reason for this failure was that the vice president appeared to be an accidental creation. By 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 made the vice president.
    It is difficult to say what the founders thought the vice president should be — to give him some role, they made him president of the Senate. But there was no clear idea what the vice president would do. If the president were to be the best person for the job, then the vice president should be the second-most-capable person. And the first two vice presidents managed to move up to the presidency. 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.
    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 — for example, he was first told of the Manhattan Project right after being sworn in.
    Truman saw to it that Alben Barkley, his vice president after 1948, would better informed, and he made the vice president a member of the National Security Council. Subsequent presidents have added substantially to the vice president’s portfolio.
    In recent years Al Gore and Walter Mondale both played notably active roles on serious policy matters. Cheney has taken it to another level — he has been cited and criticized for turning the position into a prime-ministry role.
    Of course, it is not usually mentioned, but Cheney’s extraordinary power is simply a matter of the president’s willingness to delegate it to him. He is hardly the first extremely powerful official in the White House. In the past it was usually either a cabinet member, someone in the White House staff, or political gurus such as Karl Rove (for George W. Bush) or Dick Morris (for Bill Clinton) who exercised undue authority. It is merely a matter of the having the president’s confidence.
    But even with Cheney departing the scene, and a new, more active president coming onto taking the reins of power, the vice president will not return to effective oblivion. This is because the reasons for the resurgence of the role are also practical. It is based on major systemic changes in how we elect president.
    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 usually be a sop to the losing side. But that system has been overthrown by the direct primary and caucus election. Party unity is no longer paramount — now, the presidential candidate alone effectively chooses his or her running mate. In order to win more support for their presidential run, the nominees look for the best way to increase their own chances of election. The running mates, with some eye-opening exceptions, are themselves frequently possible presidential timber. Notably, seven of the last 11 vice presidents have gone on to secure their party’s nomination for the presidency.
    For this reason, it is unlikely that a vice president is going to passively accept being sidelined from all action in the future. Biden may not have an active a role as Cheney, but there is little question he will make sure that the vice presidency remains a critically important part of the executive branch.
    Joshua Spivak, a public relations executive and attorney, is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College