Thursday, February 7, 2008

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The vice presidential paradox

In a post on whether Mike Huckabee might be John McCain's wingman on the 2008 GOP ticket, Ramesh Ponnuru makes an interesting point regarding the ratcheting up of standards for Vice Presidents:

The job of the vice president has changed, thanks to Clinton's decision to pick Al Gore in 1992 and Bush's decision to pick Dick Cheney in 2000. These men, at the time they were picked, were extraordinarily well respected; and they went on to have greater responsibilities than previous vice presidents. I think voters now expect vice presidential nominees to pass a higher bar. They can't be picked solely to win a state or lock down a constituency. They have to be plausible presidents. I expect that consideration will be even more important given McCain's age. And I'm not sure that Huckabee can clear that bar.
I have really mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, Huckabee is clearly not ready for prime time as a president, and based on his foreign policy views, I want pretty far away from the corridors of power.

On the other hand, the ratcheting of the VP bar creates a different problem -- instead of a buffoon or a lightweight, you have a talented, ambitious politician placed in an ambiguous position. This means presidents need to give them something to do in terms of policymaking. And, frankly, the results have ranged from unproductive (negotiating a global warming treaty that had zero chance of ratification; outsourcing government) to destructive (screwing with the foreign policymaking process).

The paradox is that an ideal vice president should be ready to be president from day one. At the same time, such a person -- in order to take the job -- requires major policy bailiwicks to tide him or her over.

I'm not sure what the right mix is for a VP selection, but I don't think either the "true lightweight" or "ambitious heavyweight" molds works terribly well.

Anyone have any suggestions?

UPDATE: Over at the Monkey Cage, Lee Sigelman crunches some numbers to try and divine who the actual VP picks might be for the donkey side.

posted by Dan on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM


I'd rather have someone that had some talent in the position even at the risk of potentially undercutting the president. The problem with Cheney is that he was essentially given free rein in foreign policy during the first term, largely because his ideas basically dovetailed with those of Bush and the neocons. If Bush had had other strong voices around, Cheney would have been less able to manipulate the policy-making process. As forThe VP is a constitutional office; it's ridiculous to have some lightweight that contributes nothing. The point is you need a president that is able to deal with other strong people and is not afraid to have dissenting voices--granted, not many presidents have really been willing to do that.

posted by: Marc Schneider on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

President's chief lobbyist worked well for LBJ.

posted by: Lord on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

Was George H.W. Bush picked "solely to win a state or lock down a constituency?" Presumably no -- which raises the curious question as to why Ponnuru traced the raising of the VP-bar to Gore in 92 (anyone have any insights into how the role of the VP shifted when Gore assumed office besides Gore having his own national security advisor??). Reagan had contemplated picking President Ford to be his running mate presumably because Ford could be a "plausible president" and indeed was one! So maybe an argument can be made that voters have been expecting vice presidents to "pass a higher bar" long before Al in 92.

posted by: jsd on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

Bush 41 was nominated to lock down a constituency--the Rockefeller or country-club Republicans suspicious of the conservative upstart.

posted by: John Bragg on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

You know, we do have an historical record available to consult as to whether Vice Presidents have succeeded in fulfilling their most important function -- serving in the Presidency if the sitting President dies in office or has to resign.

In the 20th century a Vice President succeeded directly to the Presidency five times. In two cases (Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge) the elevated Vice President was conspicuously more able than the President he replaced. A third case brought to the White House a lawmaker (Lyndon Johnson) far more talented than his predecessor, at a time when lots of controversial laws had to be gotten through Congress. Richard Nixon made Gerald Ford Vice President, after which Ford led the country away from the Constitutional crisis Nixon had created. And the fifth case was that of Harry Truman, generally reckoned among the half dozen or so best Presidents in our history.

The traditional "bar" for choosing Vice Presidents has worked just fine. There isn't any need for a President to warp the processes of his administration just to give his Vice President something to do. Weak Presidents, preoccupied with the permanent campaign and inexperienced in large areas of national policy, have lately found it desirable to grace their Vice Presidents with substantial authority and a very large staff. This precedent, having been made, can be unmade. All that is required for that to happen is a President who doesn't come to the job as a novice in the national security area, and who knows what he wants from the major Cabinet departments.

Voters will be OK with this. Media commentators, especially those who wish their party had nominated someone else, will be frustrated, and so will many academics. It would do both groups good to learn how to live with disappointment.

posted by: Zathras on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

For those who believe the traditional "bar" is good enough, two words--Dan Quayle.

My pick--Jack Ryan.

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

Isn't there a false dichotomy here--how many people (elected politicians) have enough clout to carry a big state or sway an interest group but yet are lightweights?

posted by: Bill Harshaw on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

First off, I'll mention that Mondale was touted as a new kind of active VP.

I find the argument incoherent when applied to actual cases in the recent past, but I do think there is a kind of person that makes for a promising VP -- someone who is qualified by experience (preferably administrative) for the presidency, but has no shot on his/her own, and knows it. This could be a past unsuccessful candidate (Rockefeller) or someone who has never really been considered (a non-politician, or a respected non-contender like, say, Ed Rendell -- or Dick Cheney).

The proper role for such a VP, it seems to me, is NOT policy as such, but special projects that require concentrated senior-level coordination. Everyone would be happier today if Cheney had handled disaster relief instead of doing policy.

posted by: mr punch on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

"The proper role for such a VP, it seems to me, is NOT policy as such, but special projects that require concentrated senior-level coordination."

The proper role for the VP is presiding over the Senate, period. The VP is an officer of the legislative branch, not the executive, and he or she should not exercise any executive branch powers.

posted by: Skip Oliva on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

What about Condi Rice? She is a smart black woman.

posted by: JAO on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

It will be Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who has Huckabee's sunny personality and political appeal without his ignorance, or for that matter anything even remotely economically populist that might unsettle CPAC.

If Republicans want to go on being partisan and hardcare (see party unity and presidential support and liberal-conservative scores in Congress, look at how the Republicans are all bunched to the far right while the Dems are all over the place), the only way they can do it democratically is with someone who can convince independent voters that there's at least some merit to it. McCain was the first part of that process, and Pawlenty is by far the most logical way to finish it off. He's that rare combination these days -- conservative, congenial and competent.

Otherwise he has to pick a moderate, and CPAC will spontaneously combust, or another Darth Cheney type and indie voters will flee.

posted by: DB on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

It would be nice if you picked someone with, like, two heads, to more clearly illustrate the "both in the executive and legislative branch" thing.

posted by: Sanjay on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

I think a good VP should be an intern or apprentice of the President, but also be able to advise in some areas of expertise.

Right now I'm thinking Fmr CO Gov Bill Owens would make a good pick.

posted by: shua nedy on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

Steve Young.

posted by: George Wolf on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

A VP has one real job: not to screw up in the debate or otherwise make a gaffe. A VP can't win votes for the nominee, but might well lose them if he comes across like a nut.

Who fits the bill? Someone who has experience in national campaigns, has a proven ability to avoid gaffes, but perhaps was unable to be the nominee because he was not charismatic enough to stand out in a multicandidate crowd.

On the GOP side: Fred Thompson (who also helps with the base).

On the Dem side: Why not Dick Gephardt?

posted by: Michael Lewyn on 02.07.08 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

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