Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Despite all the ridicule, the vice presidency has become a powerful office and we should be careful who we choose, writes Julian Zelizer
Most observers evaluate vice presidents purely in campaign terms, ignoring their governing role, he says
We think about the vice presidency in all the wrong ways.
Campaign coverage tends to focus exclusively on which vice presidential pick will be best for the party nominee in the November election.
Almost every conversation revolves around what a potential running mate would add or detract from the party ticket. Could the nominees bring any swing states with them? Do their personalities or experience make up for the perceived weaknesses of the main candidate?
Is there something about their personal background or policy agenda that would excite key constituencies? Might they have a scandal in their background that could bring down the entire campaign?
The question that we rarely ask, but which is the most pertinent of all, is how will that person do at the job?
We still tend to think of the vice presidency as a ceremonial job that doesn’t bring with it much power or authority. When Americans think of vice president, many probably imagine Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character on the hit sitcom “Veep,” recalling how in the first few seasons she didn’t have much to do except sit around with her staff and gripe about POTUS.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president, John Nance Garner, famously captured the feelings that many Americans have of the office when he complained that the “vice presidency is not worth a bucket of warm piss.”
But this is not your grandfather and grandmother’s vice presidency anymore. The reality is that the vice presidency now comes with a massive amount of institutional and political power.
40 years of change
Most vice presidents since Walter Mondale have demonstrated that they can wield considerable influence in Washington. Vice presidents are formidable policymakers and forceful political actors. They command large professional staffs and enjoy their own line in the executive budget.
Vice presidents are regularly included in high-level White House meetings and they are granted access to the ongoing flow of classified documents that come through the Oval Office. They serve as top advisers to the president.
The shift toward a powerful vice presidency began with Mondale, who served for President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981. Mondale, a liberal former senator from Minnesota who moved the office into the West Wing, reconceived the job.
Carter, who didn’t have much experience in Washington, relied on Mondale to serve in a key role advising him on the formulation of policy and building support in Congress for his proposals. Carter invited Mondale to be part of high-level meetings and turned to him for advice.
Mondale was at the forefront of the struggle to pass economic policy measures and helped to formulate the SALT II Treaty. Mondale was able to greatly enhance the budgetary and professional resources available to the vice presidency so that the next person who held that office would not have to start over.
George H.W. Bush, the former congressman and director of the CIA, took Mondale’s accomplishments and ran with them. President Reagan valued Bush’s immense expertise on foreign policy. Bush played a major role in the formulation of the administration’s anti-communist policies in Central America. Reagan named Bush to head the Task Force on Combating Terrorism.
Vice President Dan Quayle, who was Bush’s running mate, was an anomaly. A former senator who was not viewed as a great pick, Quayle didn’t play a major role in the Bush White House. While he did remain a voice for cultural conservatives (famously blasting the show “Murphy Brown” for failing to promote conservative values), the office faded in importance between 1989 and 1993.
What Gore did
Former Tennessee Sen. Al Gore brought the vice presidency back with a bang. Clinton turned to him to guide the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFA) through Congress when it faced fierce opposition from liberal Democrats who warned that the agreement would cost jobs.
Gore’s 1993 televised debate on CNN’s “Larry King Live” against Ross Perot, who ran against Clinton and Bush in 1992 by warning of the “giant sucking sound” that Americans would hear as jobs disappeared to Mexico, was considered a turning point for the trade deal.
Gore helped to craft the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996 that deregulated the communications industry, and he worked on foreign policy negotiations in the former Soviet bloc. A number of important appointments such as Carol Browner at EPA and Bruce Babbitt at Interior went to his allies. Clinton depended on Gore to head high-level policy initiatives on issues like reinventing government, while chairing bilateral commissions.
Then there was Dick Cheney. If Americans were still laughing about vice presidents, they weren’t chuckling after Cheney was done with the job.
When George W. Bush picked Cheney for the job, he selected someone with deep experience in national politics. Cheney used his background as chief of staff to Gerald Ford and minority whip for the House Republicans, to figure out how to employ all the institutional resources at his command to shape White House policy.
When Bush tackled energy policy, Cheney worked behind closed doors as the head of a task force that devised programs that would benefit the energy producers through subsidies and protect them from regulation.
Following 9/11, Cheney became a titanic force in the development of counterterrorism policy. As Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman showed in his brilliant biography, Cheney deployed his masterful knowledge of policymaking to exert influence at all levels of government. He made sure to staff every level of the Pentagon with staffers who were loyal to his agenda.
Gellman recounts how Cheney would travel in his six-car motorcade to Capitol Hill every Tuesday to join the Senate Republicans in their weekly caucus. When Lyndon Johnson tried to tried to do this in 1961, his former colleagues turned the “Master of the Senate” away from the door. “This caucus is not open to former senators,” said the liberal senator, and father of the future vice president, Al Gore Sr. Cheney did not allow himself to be denied.
Cheney had always understood that the office was more powerful than people assumed. “People are awed by the vice president and reluctant to disagree with him,” Cheney told Donald Rumsfeld in 1975.
As vice president, he developed programs that employed torture, skirted international agreements and congressional oversight, and put into place extensive surveillance of communication. He was a strong force in the preemptive war against Iraq, relying on flimsy intelligence about weapons of mass destruction to drum up support in Congress. He stifled negotiations with the North Koreans and Iran.
Vice President Joe Biden has been enormously consequential as well. While Barack Obama ran in 2008 complaining of how powerful Cheney had been, Biden didn’t step aside once he reached the West Wing. Biden believed that he could thrive as vice president, making that job an end in itself.
During the 2012 campaign, Biden himself made this clear when he boasted: “I literally get to be the last guy in the room with the President. That’s our arrangement.” From the very start of his term, President Obama has relied heavily on Biden to help him develop and push his domestic and foreign policy agenda.
Biden handled much of the stimulus program labeled the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, no small matter given that it involved the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars for the recovery of the economy. Often dismissed by Republicans, the program proved to be hugely effective.
Biden directed money in effective fashion and there was remarkably little evidence of corruption. When President Obama stalled on taking a stance on gay marriage, Biden in 2012 moved out front on the issue and nudged him to stake out a position.
Biden was also a major force moving the president toward the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and Iraq. Mitt Romney half-joked when he criticized the “Obama-Biden-Hillary Clinton foreign policy.”
So it is not a surprise that every four to eight years, journalists end up penning pieces about the current vice president being the “most powerful ever.” The reality is that it is now a powerful job despite the jokes and roasts.
What Clinton and Trump would need
Regardless of who wins the presidency, the next vice president will be a major political force. Clinton would need a strong vice president to overcome entrenched congressional opposition and to help develop and implement her policies. Trump would need a vice president to master and formulate his actual policy agenda, let alone figure out how to make things move in Washington.
Given the role that the vice president inevitably plays, it is vital that we think about how this individual will be as an influential policymaker, not just as part of the campaign ticket. What is the nominee’s policy expertise and style of governance? How does he or she view the limits and possibilities of executive power, the accountability of leaders and the working relationship with a president?
Then there is the most obvious question voters must ask: How would the vice presidential pick be as president should he or she be required to take over the office? Eight vice presidents have entered the Oval Office as the result of the death of the president, while Gerald Ford became commander in chief when Richard Nixon resigned.
The choice for vice president is of much more than a junior campaign partner. The nation is deciding on a powerful leader and policymaker who will not be vetted by Congress. The electorate needs to make sure that it takes that job seriously and the media needs to make certain it is asking the questions that matter.