The Virtues Of Vices

With all the talk back and forth between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton about the vice presidency (and an e-mail from a foreign Wizbang reader asking about the office), I think it’s time to take a look at the office — what it is all about, what it means, and what the officeholder does.

Constitutionally, the Vice-President has exactly two duties. The first is to preside over the Senate, serving as its “speaker” when it’s in session and casting a vote only when there is a tie.

I get the feeling that the Founding Fathers did that so the Vice President would have something to keep himself busy while he fulfilled his second duty — waiting for the President to die, become incapable of carrying out the office, resign, or be impeached and convicted.

It’s clear that they didn’t really think too much about the office when they wrote the Constitution. Originally, it was to go to the second-place candidate in the run for the presidency. That little idea died a quick death once politics showed that they would trump what can only be described as blind, stupid optimism that principle and self-sacrifice would prevail, and a losing candidate would swallow his pride and take the number two slot behind the guy who just beat him.

Ideally, a president should pick his running mate based on the theory of “who can best carry out the office should I not be able to do so.” After all, that has happened to six of the forty-six men who have held the office.

Practically, though, it’s devolved to the point of “who can best help me get elected.” That’s led to some rather odd results — not always for the best. Andrew Johnson, Lyndon Johnson, and Dan Quayle come to mind there.

Also, vice presidents attend a lot of funerals. Whenever some prominent political figure dies, either at home or abroad, it’s usually the veep who gets to convey the nation’s respects.

The last two presidents chose their running mates who they thought could be good junior partners in the office. Dick Cheney has been remarkably loyal and effective in an office that, nominally, only has as much power as the President is willing to grant, and Bush has given him a great deal of authority and clout. And Al Gore was given several high-profile roles by President Clinton, such as reforming the government bureaucracy.

On the other hand, I’m still not quite sure what the first President Bush was thinking when he tapped Dan Quayle for his running mate. The man had a public image as a vacuous twit, a frat-boy glad-hander hopelessly out of his depth, and I still believe to this day that it was in large measure justified. (I also read his wife’s horrid novel, and couldn’t believe it was actually published. I also remember Robin Williams’ brilliant observation — if you gave Dan and Marilyn Quayle sex-change operations, they’d look very much like Prince Charles and Princess Diana.)

Ronald Reagan, when he chose George H. W. Bush as his running mate, was — consciously or not — echoing the Founding Fathers’ original intent by co-opting one of his harsher rivals. (Bush, you might recall, was the one who called Reagan’s plan “voodoo economics.”) He also groomed him to be his successor, and succeeded — thanks in large part to the Democrats nominating the astonishingly bland and boring Michael Dukakis.

Jimmy Carter seemed to be trying to compensate for his own lack of experience at the federal level by choosing a long-time senator, Walter Mondale, for his veep.

Gerald Ford was picked by Richard Nixon for the simple expediency of being confirmable by the Senate. Ford had been a long-term Congressman, a likely candidate for Speaker should the Republicans gain the majority. I have no idea why before that he chose Spiro Agnew — the old theory postulated about Dan Quayle might be relevant — assassination insurance. “Go ahead and shoot me, and see who you get as your next president!”

Lyndon Johnson chose Hubert Humphrey as his vice-president, and explained it thusly, in his typical colorful and crass manner: “it’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.” He did it to neutralize Humphrey’s power as a critic.

Johnson himself had been chosen by Kennedy to help him win election. “Landslide Lyndon” was capable of delivering Texas (by hook or by crook), and Kennedy needed Texas to win.

Quite frankly, I can’t blame candidates for focusing on their ability to help win an election. There really isn’t much for him to do after taking the oath of office. In fact, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, described the office as not worth “a warm bucket of piss.” (That last word is often altered to “spit.”) There has to be something they can do between breaking Senate ties and going to funerals.

The problem is that any real change to the office will require a Constitutional amendment, and those aren’t easy. It vests near-absolute executive power in the President, and any power or authority given to the vice-president must necessarily come from his.

Also, just what sort of authority should the veep get? Presiding over the Cabinet? The President does that. It doesn’t need a chairman.

There really isn’t anything that readily springs to mind as a good “day job” for the vice-president, something to keep him busy and out of trouble while waiting for the big chair to open up or another foreign plenipotentiary to keel over. It’s a combination of a political airbag and appendix, sitting there ignored and functionless — until it either is suddenly, critically needed or becomes infected and malignant.

And I have absolutely no idea what should be done about it — if anything.

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