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Vice President's Role In Governing Evolves

Sarah Palin and the peculiar odyssey of the modern American vice presidency

Samuel Staley
September 12, 2008

Gov. Sarah Palin's speech to the Republican National Convention helped give the John McCain presidential bandwagon the bounce it needed to pull ahead of the Obama/Biden ticket in national polls.

Now as she takes on the conventional vice presidential candidate role on the Republican ticket as an ideological pit bull. This is unfortunate because her nomination to number two spot raises important questions about how modern presidencies govern.

Historically, Gov. Palin's nomination should hardly be controversial. One of the oddest and most extraordinary characteristics of the U.S. Constitution may be the absence of a job description for the vice president. John Adams, the nation's first vice president and our second president, famously complained 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."

The vice president was considered so inconsequential that vacancies were common. Eighteen presidents have left the position unfilled after they were elevated to the presidency or they succeeded a president who died in office. Neither Harry Truman nor Lyndon Johnson bothered to appoint a successor after the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. (This changed in 1967 when the 25th Amendment required the president to nominate a successor.)

This isn't surprising since, officially, the duties of the vice president are limited: succeed the president in the event the office is "vacated," preside over the Senate and cast the deciding vote in the case of a tie, and certify the results of the electoral college in a presidential election. Other than that, constitutionally, the VP can kick back and enjoy the show.

All this began to change in 1952, when President Dwight Eisenhower gave Vice President Richard Nixon uncharacteristically executive responsibilities. Nixon, in the words of Cleveland State University constitutional scholar David Forte, "became a fully functioning executive official." But, the veep's status still waxed and waned, depending on his personal relationship with the president.

The vice president's status may have changed permanently when Walter Mondale was elected as the nation's 42nd vice president under Jimmy Carter. In addition to traveling extensively and stumping for the administration's agenda, Mondale initiated weekly meetings with Carter and fleshed out his policy staff to mirror that in the White House. "After Mondale," notes Colby College presidential scholar G. Calvin Mackenzie, "vice presidents have tended to be involved in policy decisions and often in efforts to implement them."

President Bill Clinton elevated the vice president's status even further as Al Gore took on substantial governing roles on environmental policy and system-wide government reform.

Under President George W. Bush, Dick Cheney has become an integral part of the policy machinery, prompting some to even muse that the current administration is an informal co-presidency.

And that's what makes the nominations of Sen. Joseph Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin historically provocative and politically interesting.

Obama's pick of Biden is very "new school," thoroughly within the evolving role of the vice president since Mondale. Like Cheney, Biden is the consummate Washington insider, effective at working with legislative coalitions with a deep appreciation for beltway politics and the machinery of the federal government. Obama has said he chose Biden to help him govern. Moreover, his former presidential candidacy and deep knowledge of foreign affairs would have qualified him to fill the shoes of several cabinet-level positions.

Then there's Gov. Palin. McCain chose Palin for her impact on voters, not to help him govern. The socially conservative Palin serves an important tactical purpose by energizing the Republican base and addressing fears among party stalwarts that McCain isn't conservative "enough." Her rousing speech at the GOP convention was calculated to carefully nurture her outsider status and complement the political myth of McCain's maverick status.

These themes work contrary to the evolving role of the vice president we've seen in recent decades, and raise important questions about her ability to assist McCain in implementing the reform agenda they are touting.

Unfortunately, while Palin's outside the beltway experience and independent streak is serving McCain's candidacy very well now, should they win, she will face a very steep learning curve if she moves from the Alaska governor's mansion to inside-the-beltway politics and the massive bureaucracy of the federal government.

This election will be historic for many obvious reasons, not the least of which the U.S. will finally see either an African-American president or a woman vice president. It will also be historic for the less obvious, but potentially more important, reason that the role of vice president is permanently transitioning from, in the words of John Adams, "the most insignificant office" contrived or conceived, to a critical position in national governance.


Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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