President Trump, flanked by ‪Vice President Pence. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

When Al Gore became vice president, legendary scholar Richard Neustadt — one of Gore’s former professors — sent him a memo with advice. One sentence stuck with me: “The White House staff lives in the present, the VP’s staff in the future.”

Other than presiding over the Senate and breaking its ties, the Constitution gives the vice president only one duty: wait. It would be inhuman to expect anyone ambitious enough to become vice president to undertake that duty passively. It would be irresponsible for any vice president not to devote some time to thinking about “what if.” But it has been taboo for the vice president to use his rectangular office in the West Wing for such “future”-oriented activities in a way that casts a shadow over the “present” activities in the oval-shaped one down the hall.

(Reuters)

Thus, reports that Vice President Pence is going beyond mere “active waiting,” to making moves to position himself to run if President Trump does not seek reelection, have created controversy. Though the vice president’s office has denied that any conclusions should be drawn from his reported actions, it has not disputed many of the specifics, including a trip to Iowa, meetings with major donors and establishing a political action committee. In the ensuing hoopla, Pence has been portrayed as gauchely overeager, like a diner in a fancy restaurant leaning over and asking a stranger, “Are you going to finish that?”

As the only former chief of staff to two vice presidents, I think this reaction has been misguided in two critical respects.

First, what Pence is doing is not beyond the pale for an ambitious vice president. While the last two sitting vice presidents to run for president — George H.W. Bush and Al Gore — were a bit more discreet, they nonetheless began politicking with party insiders, donors and early-primary-state muckety-mucks from their earliest days in office. Even during Bill Clinton’s first term, it was hard to find an Iowa county chair, New Hampshire legislator or DNC finance committee member who had not gotten a birthday call from Gore. Bush’s handwritten notes to political insiders were legendary and ubiquitous.

Moreover, there is a strong logic to undertaking such activity early in a president’s tenure. Vice-presidential stroking of party egos spares the president the need to do such pedestrian politicking himself. A vice president operating under the presidential mantle does build long-term relations and accumulates long-term chits for his own benefit, but also creates political capital that the administration can leverage in the here and now. Working to boost candidates in midterm elections likewise serves both “present” and “future” agendas. In this way, nothing Pence has been doing on the political front should give Trump any heartburn.

At the same time, however, it is likewise a mistake to assume any of this will do Pence any good if Trump’s presidency collapses. In the 213 years since the 12th Amendment created our system of joint presidential-vice-presidential tickets, no vice president has been elected to the highest office after serving with a president who declined to seek, or was defeated in seeking, a second elected term. And as for coming to office via the president’s ouster, the only vice president to follow that path, Gerald Ford, lost when he campaigned to retain the office — and he had far less to do with President Richard M. Nixon’s scandals than Pence does with the mess around Trump.

This is the vice-presidential prisoner’s dilemma: There is no distance he can achieve, no political support he can muster, no congressional chits he can collect, no donor base he can assemble that can survive the fallout from a failed presidency. A vice president is either implicated as being in the loop or looks foolish if he insists that he was out of it. There’s too much video of any vice president praising, promoting and partnering with his boss to say, “President who?”

A vice president’s record behind the scenes in the administration is, by definition, obscure to voters. As a result, for better or worse, a vice president must run on the president’s record: If Trump’s record is bad enough to prevent him from running in 2020, it will flatten Pence as well.

If Pence seeks the presidency in 2020 because Trump has been forced out of office, or pressured not to run for reelection due to unpopularity, he will suffer the same fate as Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Ford in 1976, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Dan Quayle in 2000: defeat. Nothing Pence is doing now will break him out of a political imprisonment of his own creation.