The evolution of the Vice President's job

Michael Barone:

The office of vice president has long been the butt of jokes -- you know the punch lines -- but as we await Barack Obama's and John McCain's choices for vice president, we do so with the knowledge that vice presidents in the last five administrations have been important officers of government. (Yes, including Dan Quayle -- see Bob Woodward and David Broder's book). How the vice presidency has been transformed is an interesting story that takes us from the Founding Fathers to recent history.

The framers of the Constitution created the vice presidency to solve the problem of succession. They expected that electors meeting in state capitals would vote for two candidates from different states, with the No. 2 vote-getter becoming vice president. It worked well twice. Then the unexpected emergence of political parties produced bizarre results.

In 1796, John Adams was elected president and his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, vice president. In 1800, the electors produced a tie between Jefferson and his ticket-mate, Aaron Burr, broken only by an opposition Federalist in the House of Representatives. The Twelfth Amendment promptly passed, providing that electors cast separate votes for president and VP. Parties would nominate one man for each office.

The result, with few exceptions, was the nomination of mediocrities to balance a ticket geographically or ideologically. In 1824 and 1828, the nomination for the dominant Jeffersonian Party was secured by John C. Calhoun, who disagreed bitterly with his two presidents, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. After the first Democratic national convention took on the task of picking VP nominees in 1832, Calhoun resigned and returned to the Senate.


Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale turned the vice presidency around. Mondale had offices and staffers in the West Wing, regular one-on-one meetings with the president and access to top appointees. Their example has been followed since. And presidential nominees have not waited for the very last minute at the convention to pick their VPs since Ronald Reagan did it in 1980. Potential VPs are vetted closely and with a view to how well they could work with the president. An office that was long the vermiform appendix of American government has become a useful organ.

Jimmy Carter needed someone to tell him how things worked in Washington and he still struggled with the job even though his party controlled Congress. Ronald Reagan needed someone who could jump in an SR-71 and fly to Paris to tell the Iranians not to release the hostages (just kidding). It tells you something about Democrats that they believed the latter possible.

Clinton's VP was a divinity school flunk out who converted to the church of global warming and for some reason liberals thought that he was smart. Cheney has been intelligent and wise and filled with gravitas. He has also been a lightening rod for liberal hysteria. Since liberals have been hysterical for much of the last eight years, Cheney has been busy.

John Adams was the first to struggle with the office and he also suffered from the duplicity of Jefferson who held the office during Adams one term. I still do not understand how Aaron Burr came so close to becoming President.


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