Monday, August 20, 2007

The Transformation of the Vice Presidency

The Huffington Post
Bruce Schulman
The Transformation of the Vice Presidency

Dick Cheney is widely acknowledged as the most influential vice president in the nation's history. His tenure as No. 2 represents the culmination of a half-century long transformation of the nation's second highest office.

Remaking what had been an essentially political position -- useful in the campaign but empty after Inauguration Day -- into a central institution of government, Cheney and President George Bush have crafted a new power center in American politics, a reservoir of executive power free not only from congressional oversight and public scrutiny, but also from the Cabinet departments and even the normal workings of the White House.

Late night talk show hosts had a field day with Cheney's recent claims that his office belonged to neither the executive nor the legislative branch. But the vice president seemed to have the last laugh. By insulating his office from political influence -- from accountability of any kind, Cheney has helped create a novel institution in American governance.

Certainly, few of his predecessors could have anticipated Cheney's role. For most of the nation's history, the vice presidency was regarded as a cipher, and many of the office's occupants deserved Johnny Carson's jibe that in America anyone can grow up to be president and anyone who doesn't grow up can be vice president.

John Adams, the first man to hold the office, called the post "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." Adams liked to joke about a poor, bereaved mother with two sons. One went off to sea, the other became vice president... and neither was heard from again.

Nearly every one of Adams's successors shared his opinion. Woodrow Wilson's vice president, Thomas R. Marshall, claimed that the vice president "is like a man in a cataleptic state. He cannot speak. He cannot move. He suffers no pain. And yet he is conscious of all that goes on around him."

From the 19th century through the 1960s, the vice presidency mattered only during presidential campaigns, in the brief window between the party nominating conventions and the election in November. Presidential candidates selected running mates to strengthen the ticket outside their home region.

In 1960, for example, Democrat John F. Kennedy chose Lyndon B. Johnson to strengthen his candidacy in Texas and across the South, while Republican Richard M. Nixon selected Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge to blunt his rival's strength in the Northeast. Lodge helped Nixon hold normally Republican New Hampshire and Vermont against the New Englander Kennedy, but it was L.B.J.'s ability to deliver Texas that won the narrow election for J.F.K.

Vice presidential nominations could also heal breeches within the parties. The 1880 GOP ticket paired Chester Arthur, a representative of the Republican "Stalwarts" who opposed civil service reform and looked askance on reconciliation with the defeated South, with the "Half-Breed" James Garfield.

In 1976, Ronald Reagan updated this tradition when he named Richard Schweiker as his running mate weeks before the Republican convention. Reagan tapped the liberal Pennsylvania senator in an unsuccessful effort to reach out to moderates in his party and wrest the nomination from the incumbent President Gerald R. Ford.

Since the 1960s, however, the vice presidency has all but lost this political role. While some candidates have selected running mates to make a splash that might generate favorable publicity -- for example, Walter F. Mondale's selection of the first woman nominee to run on a major party ticket, Geraldine Ferraro, in 1984, or Al Gore's tapping the first Jew, Joseph Lieberman -- campaigns no longer expect vice presidential candidates to deliver specific regions or constituencies.

Rather than balancing the ticket, presidential nominees often use running mates to reinforce their own message. Bill Clinton, a white Protestant Southern New Democrat chose Gore, another white Protestant Southern New Democrat, in 1992. Certainly, no one today expects the veep to affect the outcome of the general election.

But while the vice presidency has lost its political importance, the office has become steadily more important. Historically, the position had been at nest a ceremonial post, often even less. Vice presidents rarely attended important meetings, saw secret materials, or even entered the White House. Harry Truman, for example, did not learn about the atomic bomb until he became president. For L.B.J., the office was "filled with trips around the world, chauffeurs, men saluting, people clapping, chairmanships of councils, but in the end it is nothing." He "detested every minute of it."

That began to change during the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter created the modern vice presidency. Carter installed Mondale in the West wing (no previous VP had a White House office), granted him access to classified materials, and met with him privately every week. Clinton and Gore extended this role; the vice president became an influential advisor shaping policies such as the deficit reduction package and the NATO intervention in Kosovo. Gore also directed the president's "reinventing government" initiative and was able to install his own people in key administration positions, like former aide Carol Browner as EPA Director and longtime friend Reed Hundt as FCC Chairman.

Cheney marks the culmination of these trends. Not only did Cheney do little to balance the ticket with George W. Bush, he is the first sitting vice president since 1952 not to seek the presidency after his boss bows out. Immune to political pressure, the vice president works in unprecedented secrecy. He rarely publishes his calendar, destroys his visitor logs, and even refuses to release the size and names of his staff.

Within this insulated bubble, taking advantage of that privileged position, the president has granted Cheney wide authority in matters ranging from treatment of captured terror suspects to energy policy, supreme court nominations to water rights disputes. More than anything else, Cheney has used his position to expand the unchecked authority of the White House, reclaiming some of the perquisites of the imperial presidency that Congress had removed back when a younger Cheney served under President Ford.

Cheney has dramatically completed the transformation of the vice presidency from running mate into surrogate chief of staff. To be sure, it is unlikely that future VPs will not harbor ambitions to seek the presidency in their own right and care so little about public approval (though some presidential candidates might emulate the model of choosing an elder statesman running mate immune to political influence).

But future presidents will likely desire the expanded authority, freedom of movement and the freedom from scrutiny they derive from such a powerful asset. For better or worse, the vice presidency is likely to be a power center for years to come.