Walter Mondale shortly after his victory in the 1984 Democratic Primaries.

When Your Long-Term President Wants to Invite in a Third Person

By Adam Sanders.

We voters like to think of our relationships with our presidents as exclusive relationships between them and ourselves. They protect us, they provide for us, they tell us they love us, and make sure to see us often, especially if we live close to them in a place like Pennsylvania or Ohio. But even early in the relationship, before we even decide if they are the right man for us, they already seem to have other people in their lives. Whenever the two of you go on a date, whether to a rally, a fancy PAC dinner, or a coal mine where they awkwardly (but adorably) wear hardhats and suits at the same time, they always bring their plus one. That person is their running mate, their Vice-Presidential nominee. That is the person we need to talk about.

Vice-Presidential nominees come in all shapes and sizes, but they typically either compliment or supplement the candidate, and are his biggest cheerleader. If your prospective president is young, the VP is old, or vice versa. If the candidate eyeing you is from a major city, the VP might be from the countryside. If the future president is a little fringe, his VP might be more towards the center to balance him out if the candidate is to stay competitive. Now, you might be thinking that this is all just to balance the ticket and increase turnout. To be sure, we all know that the Constitution merely states that the Vice-President can take over for an incapacitated President, preside over the Senate, and cast tie-breaking votes in that chamber as well. So then, such a politically limited role begs the question, why do people care who the VP is while the president is fully in control? It is because of what modern Vice-Presidents do on a day-to-day basis.

Counterintuitively, because the constitution does not say much about the Vice-President, Vice-Presidents are able to due a vast array of tasks assigned to them. The Presidency and its accompanying tasks in the present day are incredibly vast and diverse, and they only become more so. I argue that particularly in the postwar era, American presidents have increasingly been using Vice-Presidents like prime ministers. Now to a lot of American voters, this may seem like a strange idea. Americans tend to think of prime ministers as politicians running their respective countries on behalf of purely ceremonial monarchs, like Queen Elizabeth II. They certainly can operate that way, but there are also a number of countries that have presidents and prime ministers at the same time, as freaky as that sounds.

How that has begun to operate in the U.S. context has to do in the various experiences and skill sets Vice Presidents bring to the table. For example, George W. Bush inherited Dick Cheney from his father’s administration, allowing Cheney to bring prior White House experience to Bush Jr. Al Gore, Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris were all previously Senators. This gave their respective presidencies indirect connections to key Senate members, which both let the presidents in question keep their fingers on the pulse of the chamber and indirectly pressure key Senators. Of course, these examples are of a general nature. Specific Vice Presidents also bring unique skill sets to specific administrations.

A recent example would be what Joe Biden brought to the Obama administration. As a senator, Biden served three separate terms as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee throughout the 2000s. This brought critical foreign policy experience to a president, who had no experience in foreign policy at all, being only a state senator and one-term U.S. senator previously. Specific tasks entrusted to Biden included implementing elements of the 2009 stimulus package (specifically regarding infrastructure), negotiating key legislative proposals with Mitch McConnell, and leading the Gun Violence Task Force established in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings.[1] Contrary to the limited scope of the formal powers granted to the Vice President under the U.S. Constitution, Biden clearly took on a role more akin to a minister without portfolio, one that bordered on that of a prime minister.

In fact, it has been argued that Biden’s predecessor was even more involved as a Vice President.[2] Dick Cheney, who had previously been Bush Sr.’s Secretary of Defense was formally assigned tasks by George W. Bush, such as being part of the Energy Task Force. However, Cheney’s power as Vice President was not merely in what his official tasks were. Cheney was granted a wide degree of informal autonomy in his activities, which often honeycombed through vast segments of the federal government, few elements of which he was not well-versed in. Regarding national security, Cheney was permitted to operate with virtually no congressional oversight whatsoever.

Of course, these recent developments of the Vice Presidency raise the twin questions of when did this change in the nature of the office occur, and how did it occur? In line with the Presidency itself, the Vice Presidency has gained power and relevance over a long period of time. Indeed, this growth in the Vice Presidency’s competencies as been a granular process organically spurred on to address ad-hoc issues that arose in specific presidencies. As to where one can see this process begin, one was to go back to the wartime era.

With the mass mobilization of the country at the outbreak of the Second World War, the demands and tasks of the federal government rapidly expanded and grew more complex. In response to these challenges, Franklin Roosevelt offloaded an unprecedented number of tasks onto his then-Vice President, Henry Wallace. In fact, the sheer scale of the duties carried out by a man in a purely ceremonial position led contemporaries to affectionately refer to Wallace as the “Assistant President.”[3] Once the full power of the office was realized, its potential was not forgotten. While a few successors to Wallace remained largely cheerleaders for the most part, even their roles were more active than those preceding the Second World War. Additionally, beginning in the 1970s, Vice Presidents began to push for greater roles and utility on their own initiative. The first man to promote his own office as a supplementary presidency was Walter Mondale, President Carter’s Vice President.

Mondale transformed the office of the Vice President in several important ways. First, Mondale was the first Vice President to act as an advisor to the president.[4] Secondly, Mondale was the first Vice President to be given specific assignments and put in charge of special task forces during peacetime. Mondale started the weekly lunch tradition with the President and was the first Vice President to have his own office in the White House.[5] Thus, Walter Mondale’s tenure as Vice President served to be the prototype of the contemporary office, which is now a form of minister-without-portfolio, and rapidly evolving into a form of U.S. prime minister.

Mondale’s quiet revolution involving a formerly and formally ceremonial office can be seen in his immediate successors. This revolution is evident whether in George H.W. Bush being entrusted with cracking down on drug smuggling and overseeing the overhaul of the national security apparatus, or Al Gore’s involvement in trimming down the federal bureaucracy and supporting the early tech giants.[6] As a result, who ends up being a presidential candidate’s VP nominee is highly anticipated and viciously fought over not just due to the need to balance the ticket or the need to allay worries over the nation’s increasingly geriatric political class. The position garners the attention of wonks and politicos most importantly over the impact on policy and the running mate’s own competency to carry out tasks assigned to them. Mondale may have gotten floored in the 1984 Presidential Election, but he cast a very long shadow over the White House for the renovation of an oft-forgotten office.

Therefore, when voters, who gush over a potential president who makes them feel special and pretty, need to pay attention to that third person their political crush wishes to bring into the relationship. Vice Presidents do so much more than spice things up when everyone starts feeling and election coming on. VPs help cook, clean, pay the rent, run errands, and babysit any kids you may have. In short, they are capable of, and often do, any tasks a president can do, and sometimes better! Voters need to vote like they are voting for two people in their relationship, not just someone politically hot with an attractive plus one.

Works Cited:

[1] Michael Scherer, “What Happened to the Stimulus?” time.com, Time, July 1st, 2009. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,1908417,00.html

[2] Kenneth Walsh, “The Man Behind the Curtain: Dick Cheney is the Most Powerful Vice President in History. Is that Good?” Usnews.com, U.S. News & World Report, October 5th, 2003. https://web.archive.org/web/20110205021439/http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/031013/13cheney.htm

[3] Alex Ross, “Uncommon Man: The Strange Life of Henry Wallace, the New Deal Visionary” NewYorker.com, Conde Nast, October 7th, 2013. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/10/14/uncommon-man

[4] Walter Mondale, Memo to Jimmy Carter re: The Role of the Vice President in the Carter Administration, December 9th, 1976. Walter F. Mondale Papers, (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society) p. 1–2. https://www.mnhs.org/collections/upclose/Mondale-CarterMemo-Transcription.pdf

[5] Paul Kengor, Wreath Layer or Policy Player: The Vice President’s Role in Foreign Policy (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2000), p. 85.

[6] Mark O. Hatfield, with the Senate Historical Office, “George H.W. Bush (1981–1989)” in Vice Presidents 1789–1993, (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997), p. 10.

Image Credits: Carter and Mondale celebrate primary victories in Minneapolis, MN. 3–13–84..jpg https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Mondale#/media/File:Carter_and_Mondale_celebrate_primary_victories_in_Minneapolis,_MN._3-13-84..jpg

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