The role of the Vice-President

At the GOP debate two candidates were obliquely critical of Dick Cheney's role in the current administration.

John McCain said: "I would be very careful that everybody understood that there is only one president".

Sam Brownback apparently intimated that Bush had over-relied on Cheney's foreign policy experience early in his presidency.

Well, McCain is right. There is only one President. But the President, inevitably, relies on the advice and support of a whole range of people. Some of them will have formal roles in the administration and others will not. While everybody has played it down, I am pretty sure the President listens to his father's views on a range of subjects, particularly foreign affairs and intelligence matters. It seems clear he listens to Cheney and to Condoleeza Rice. I would guess that on a range of questions - perhaps particularly education - he listens to his brother. He listens to a number of key figures in Congress.

But the ultimate decision as whose advice he actually takes is, and can only be, the President's. No-one else gets the final say. Any role assigned to the Vice-President is extra-Constitutional, in the sense that it is not required by the Constitution. But it is not forbidden by it either. The Constitution does not require there to a Treasury Department, but all Presidents have found it rather handy.

The only sensible question is should the President use the Vice-President as one of his key advisors, as Carter, Reagan, Clinton and the present President Bush have all done or not, as the current President's father preferred?

Ultimately, the answer doesn't matter. It is the President's call. There is a very minor argument of efficiency in favour of having VPOTUS as one of the advisors. The taxpayer has to fund the Vice-President's salary and office whether the President gives him anything to do or not. Also, it is worth remembering that the Vice-President does have one key role: to assume command if the worst happens. It seems a sensible precaution that the Vice-President should have a pretty good idea how things run.

There is a minor management disadvantage: the President can fire anyone else in the administration at any time and for any reason. He cannot fire the Vice-President. But the only roles from which he cannot fire him are those defined in the Constitution. He can fire the Vice-President from any additional roles or stop listening to his advice at any time.

Sam Brownback's criticism seems more substantive. But is it true? If Bush over-relied on Cheney for some of his foreign policy decisions, which were they? And does Brownback believe these decisions were wrong? If the Senator disagrees with key elements of the President's foreign policy, he owes it to Republican primary and caucus voters to say so. (In Brownback's defence, there are some issues on which he has said so, and these may, of course, be the ones he attributes to Cheney).

Finally, it is worth addressing the question of how Vice-Presidents are chosen. Most Presidential candidates feel it is important in some way to balance the ticket. This may take the form of an old candidate choosing a young running mate (Bush 41); a governor choosing someone with Washington experience (Carter, Reagan, Dukakis, Clinton and Bush 43); choosing someone who provides at least some ideological balance (Reagan, Dole); or choosing someone with some regional balance (all recent candidates except Clinton).

If the President and Vice-President have different ideologies it would be unwise to involve the Veep in too many policy decisions. But even when he is there to provide ideological balance, the Vice-President is sure to agree with many areas of the President's policy, and his influence can be restricted to those areas. Where the Vice-President was chosen for Washington experience, it seems very sensible of the President to rely on him for his knowledge of procedures and personnel, especially in the early days of the administration.

On balance, the current trend towards a high involvement for the VPOTUS seems like a good one, and the strong example of the Bush-Cheney years particularly so. The fact that Cheney is not seeking to succeed to the Presidency only seems to enhance his influence, as his advice is not tainted by divided loyalties.

So, I would have to conclude that McCain and Brownback are wrong. I am glad none of the frontrunners appeared to take the same view.

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