The Vice Presidency Grows Up

By Felzenberg, Alvin S. | Policy Review, February 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Vice Presidency Grows Up

Felzenberg, Alvin S., Policy Review

"VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY to Wield Unusual Power," said the headline on the jump page of a Washington Post story published late last year. The article speculated that George W. Bush's vice president would function as the government's CEO, with the president serving as chairman of the board. "Cheney to Play a Starring Role on Capitol Hill" proclaimed a front page New York Times article a week earlier. "Prime Minister Cheney?" asked the Economist on the cover of its year-end issue.

What was going on in the high temples of conventional wisdom as George W. Bush prepared to become the forty-third president of the United States? A certain amount of hype, perhaps. But these stories do reflect the enhanced role Richard Cheney will play in the new administration. Both because of the depth and breadth of his political experience (former White House chief of staff, former defense secretary, former member of the House leadership) and the political climate that awaits him (a 50-50 party split in the U.S. Senate), Cheney is poised to play a role unparalleled for a vice president. How involved in the administration he will be was much in evidence during the transition.

But this enhanced status and influence are not entirely a product of the particulars of Cheney's resume. They also reflect the increased power and influence the vice presidency has taken on in the past 50 years. Bush, by his own admission, had this in mind when he selected Cheney as his running mate primarily because of his experience in government.

The vice presidency has come a long way since Nelson Rockefeller dismissed it as "standby equipment." Now, vice presidents are senior advisors to the president, sometimes with a policy portfolio of their own, always as an integral part of an administration, and usually as an estimable political figure. By lore and tradition, vice presidents may command little respect. But based on their influence in recent years, they deserve far more.

This change has gone underappreciated, though its manifestations are everywhere. Pundits and politicians alike reflect the elevation of the office's status when they speak of a Bush-Quayle or a Clinton-Gore administration. Their counterparts in generations past never saw juxtaposed the names "Hoover-Curtis" or "Truman-Barkley" on anything other than campaign posters.

What accounts for the growing importance of the office of vice president? Several factors, including the age of jet travel, the power of television, cold war tensions, growing demands on the president's time -- and, in a compressed period of time, a half dozen presidential illnesses, a presidential assassination, attempts on the lives of others, the resignation of a president, and impeachment. Each of these episodes brought increased attention to the nation's second highest office and the qualifications of the person filling it.

Since the office was created, one Out of four vice presidents, whether through election in their own right or through death or resignation, became president. Every vice president elected or appointed since 1952 (Nixon, Johnson, Humphrey, Ford, Mondale, Quayle, Gore), except for two, either became a major party nominee for president or contended for the designation. (One of the two, Nelson Rockefeller, had competed for the GOP presidential nomination before and might have again, had Gerald Ford not appointed him vice president.) Two unsuccessful vice presidential candidates, Henry Cabot Lodge and Edmund S. Muskie, took a stab at their party's presidential nomination. A third, Bob Dole, received it.

All told, an office once deemed a political backwater has evolved into a recruitment field for presidents. Recent history shows that when presidential nominees select their running mates, they are also designating the "favorite" for their party's nomination four or eight years hence or even beyond.

It was for all these reasons that in 2000, both major contenders took more care in the selection of their running mates than their predecessors.

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