Dateline: 04 July 2007
What exactly, does a Vice-President do? The original version of the Constitution gave the job to the runner up in the Presidential election. The post attracted heavyweight leaders: Adams and Jefferson. But this proved unworkable. Jefferson was both Vice-President and leader of the opposition. And giving Electors two votes lead to the Jefferson-Burr tie in the 1800 election.
The Twelfth Amendment effectively downgraded the Vice-Presidency. It became a position without a role. In today’s continent-sized country we are used the Vice-Presidency being a stepping stone to a Presidential run, but for most of the history of the US that has been unusual. In 1988 George H W Bush became the first serving Vice-President to be elected President in 150 years. Others who made it to the top job – such as Truman and Johnson – did so because the President died in office.
Being Vice-President was good positioning to win your party’s nomination, but not the White House itself. John Nance Garner – who, astonishingly, gave up the Speakership of the House to become Vice-President – said the job “ain’t worth a bucket of warm spit”, and may have used a stronger word than spit.
In the 1970s a new trend began to change the job. Perhaps because successive decades saw one President assassinated and another resign in disgrace, Jimmy Carter promised that his Vice-President, Walter Mondale, would be much more involved in government than his predecessors had been.
Ronald Reagan followed the same pattern, and George HW Bush brought several of his closest friends and advisors into the very heart of Reagan’s administration. Oddly it was Bush, the former Vice-President, who broke the pattern, giving almost no role to his VP and relying on key cabinet appointees like James Baker and Dick Cheney.
Bill Clinton reasserted the Carter-Reagan trend, giving Al Gore a substantive role, though probably without as much influence as Bush had had under Reagan.
Which brings us to Dick Cheney. He is completely different. The sheer scale of his involvement in government is unprecedented. He is not waiting for the President to die – indeed it is Cheney who has had the health scares. Nor is he positioning himself for his own run at the top job. He will be the first Vice-President since the 1920s to voluntarily pass up a Presidential run.
It is probably because he is not the President’s rival that he remains so influential. He is not trying to distance himself from his boss – as Hubert Humphrey did to Lyndon Johnson, Al Gore did with Bill Clinton and even (given Iran-Contra) George Bush did with Ronald Reagan. A Vice-President who is running for President has to simultaneously say that everything is wonderful and that he is the guy to sort out the mess. Cheney faces no such conflict.
Dick Cheney is not there to be popular. A good thing too, as this is not one of his strengths. He is there because he knows Washington inside out and his boss – a state Governor at the time he ran for office – did not.
Will this be the new pattern: a powerful Vice-President with no independent ambitions? Will a Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani administration rely on Newt Gingrich in the same way? Would Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton look to George Mitchell?
Quentin Langley is editor of http://www.quentinlangley.net an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.