A conventional view is that vice presidents are important because they are “a heartbeat away from the presidency.” But modern vice presidents are important for a different reason: During the last 40 years, the vice president has become part of the White House inner circle as a senior adviser and troubleshooter for the president, and the evidence suggests that the change is enduring.
The vice presidency was a legislative position for most of American history. Most of the first 35 vice presidents, through Alben Barkley of Harry S. Truman’s elected term (1949-1953), spent their professional time presiding over the Senate. But senators were reluctant to cede power to a presiding officer they neither chose nor could remove. And the president saw no reason to engage the vice president either, since he was typically chosen not by the president but by party leaders seeking to balance the ticket.
The vice presidency moved into the executive branch beginning with Richard M. Nixon’s vice presidency (Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953-1961). The aftermath of the New Deal and World War II increased the power of, and demands on, the presidency, and presidential nominees secured the right to select their running mates beginning in 1940. The advent of the Cold War and Truman’s ascension to the presidency after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945 made the vice president’s role as presidential successor more consequential.
Vice presidents from Nixon to Nelson A. Rockefeller (Gerald Ford, 1974-1977) fulfilled a range of presidential assignments, but they generally handled issues that did not require high-level attention and remained peripheral to White House decision-making. Vice presidents did seek ongoing responsibility for some programmatic areas, but presidents and their aides resisted. They believed that fulfillment of the vice president’s ambitions was dependent on the president’s demise, a suspicion that impeded friendly relations between presidents and vice presidents.
As I argue in my new book, President Jimmy Carter and Walter F. Mondale solved these problems. Mondale proposed that the vice president serve as an across-the-board presidential adviser and troubleshooter to help presidents identify and achieve administration goals. He thereby refocused the vice president’s role from a contingent presidential successor to a contributor to presidential success. Significantly, Mondale’s memorandum describing this new vision of the vice presidency did not even mention the successor role until the very last paragraph and then made explicit that this role did not motivate his proposal.
Carter agreed to Mondale’s proposal and gave Mondale what he needed to fulfill this role: regular access to Carter on a scheduled basis and at Mondale’s discretion, inclusion of the Office of the Vice President in the Oval Office paper flow, placement of Mondale aides in key policy positions and inclusion of his staff in White House meetings, a West Wing office for Mondale, and Carter’s visible support of his vice presidnet. Mondale became part of Carter’s inner circle and functioned as an integral part of the White House.
Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Bush and Dan Quayle, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and Barack Obama and Joe Biden all adopted the Carter-Mondale vision of the vice presidency. Each vice president served as a general adviser and troubleshooter for the president. Each inherited Mondale’s West Wing office, was included on the Oval Office distribution list, met with the president privately on a regular basis and was included in decision-making meetings.
Thus, among other vice-presidential activities, Mondale helped secure ratification of the Panama Canal treaties, played an important role in the negotiations leading to the Camp David Accords and traveled to China to help normalize relations; Bush undertook numerous foreign missions and helped influence policy with the U.S.S.R.; Quayle chaired the Competitiveness Council and was an important legislative emissary; Gore managed Clinton’s reinventing government initiative, handled environmental and telecommunications policy, and guided bilateral commissions with Russia, Egypt and South Africa; Cheney was an architect of policy regarding the war on terror, Iraq and energy; and Biden negotiated various budget deals with Republican leaders and managed the economic recovery plan and the Iraq disengagement.
There were, of course, differences among these White House vice presidents. Whereas Bush and Biden engaged in diplomacy all over the world, Quayle’s foreign missions were more targeted, with emphasis on Latin America and Japan, and Cheney’s were relatively rare. Whereas Mondale, Quayle and Biden did extensive work with Congress, Gore had little Capitol Hill presence. Whereas Bush, Quayle and Biden assumed a few line responsibilities for at least a term, Gore undertook many, most lasting for Clinton’s entire presidency, and Cheney generally avoided them even while being heavily engaged in central areas of Bush’s presidency. Whereas Bush and Gore devoted much of their second terms to running for president, Cheney said even before entering office that he would not run for president, and Biden ultimately decided against a run. Whereas Mondale, Quayle and Biden regularly gave political advice, Cheney apparently did not play that role.
Moreover, some vice presidents were more influential than others, depending on their skill, standing, relationship with the president and other governmental figures, and the need for their talents, among other factors.
Notwithstanding these differences, all six vice presidents since 1977 were integral to the White House. The persistence of this pattern through three Democratic and three Republican presidencies, each with different leadership structures and styles, suggests that this change in the vice presidency reflects an institutional change and isn’t simply the result of an idiosyncratic president or vice president.
Of course, the leadership style of a particular president, the limitations of a particular vice president or a lack of compatibility between the two could diminish a vice president’s role. Nonetheless, the current selection system offers incentives to choose a running mate to be a governing partner, not to carry a swing state in the election.
For one, the reliance on presidential primaries and caucuses identifies the nominee earlier, giving him or her more time to select a running mate. That increases the chances of a selecting someone compatible and raises the stakes of an improvident decision. The inevitability of a vice-presidential debate and current media technology increase the visibility of vice-presidential candidates.
The vast range of problems facing the presidency also continues to favor a vice president who can represent the nation abroad, oversee interdepartmental projects and handle other high-level assignments in addition to providing the president with the advice of a senior politician who has similar political interests.
The persistence of this more powerful vice presidency over 10 presidential terms has created new expectations about the vice president’s role. A president who evicted the vice president from the West Wing or refused to lunch with them each week or who otherwise excluded the second officer would create an embarrassing news story and squander an asset of the modern presidency.
The creation of the White House vice presidency has occurred during a 42-year period when no vice president has ascended to the presidency because of the president’s illness or death — the second-longest period in American history. Events like the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan remind us of the vice president’s role as presidential successor.
But today, vice-presidential candidates must be presidential not because one may become president but rather because one will become vice president.
Joel K. Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law, is the author of “The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.”