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The Vice Presidency: From Balance to Ballast

Edward A. Zelinsky is the Morris and Annie Trachman Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. He is the author of The Origins of the Ownership Society: How The Defined Contribution Paradigm Changed America. In this article, Zelinsky observes that Senator Obama’s selection of Senator Biden as his running mate confirms the evolving role of vice-presidential nominees. In recent years, presidential nominees have increasingly picked running mates for the intellectual and moral ballast they add to the ticket rather than for traditional geographic and ideological balance.

Senator Obama’s selection of Senator Biden of Delaware as his running mate confirms the evolving role of vice-presidential candidates. Traditionally, presidential nominees have picked their running mates for geographical and ideological balance. However, over the last decade and a half, presidential nominees have increasingly selected vice-presidential candidates to provide intellectual and moral ballast to the national ticket.

This trend began in 1992 when then Governor Clinton selected Senator Gore as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. This pick made no sense in terms of traditional ticket balancing. Clinton and Gore were both southerners, coming from the neighboring states of Arkansas and Tennessee. Both were then perceived as centrists within the Democratic party. Compared to prior Democratic tickets (e.g., Kennedy of Massachusetts running in 1960 with Johnson of Texas), Clinton-Gore was a nonstarter.
Except that it worked. Through Gore, Bill Clinton overcame the perception that he lacked the gravitas for the presidency. Sober-minded Al Gore, a Washington insider, reassured voters that there would be an experienced hand at the top of a future Clinton administration. While Gore lacked geographic and ideological balance relative to Clinton, voters perceived Gore as bringing seriousness to the Democratic ticket.

Similar concerns were at work on the Republican side in 2000. George Bush, like Bill Clinton, was a presidential nominee about whom many voters had misgivings in terms of maturity and experience. Dick Cheney (who famously ran Bush’s vice-presidential search) brought neither ideological nor geographic balance to the Republican ticket. In fact, at the beginning of the search process, Cheney, like Bush, voted in Texas. Cheney had to switch his registration back to his home state of Wyoming so that Texas’s electors could, under the Twelfth Amendment, vote for the Bush-Cheney ticket. Moreover, both Bush and Cheney were identified as G.O.P. conservatives.

In historic terms, Bush-Cheney made little sense when compared, for example, to the Republican ticket of 1960, Nixon of California and Lodge of Massachusetts. But Cheney in 2000, like Gore in 1992, brought substantive weight to the ticket. An experienced Washington figure who had served as Secretary of Defense, as a member of the House of Representatives, and as White House Chief of Staff, Cheney’s presence on the ticket reassured voters that the prospective Republican administration would have a mature veteran at its top. This consideration overrode traditional concerns of geographic and ideological balance.

Obama’s selection of Biden fits this evolving pattern of picking vice-presidential candidates for ballast rather than balance. Biden was not selected for his ideological orientation or his geographic location. Like Obama, Biden sits comfortably in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Delaware, with its three electoral votes, is not a natural mother of presidents – or vice presidents.

However, Biden brings to the Democratic ticket a thirty year career in the U.S. Senate including much experience in foreign affairs. As a senior statesman of the Democratic party, Biden is thus positioned to blunt the charge that Obama lacks a track record in national politics and international relations.

Like many important trends, the evolution of the vice presidency from balance to ballast is not complete. Senator Kerry’s selection in 2004 of Senator Edwards fell comfortably within the tradition of a balancing choice of a vice-presidential nominee. We await Senator McCain’s decision on his running mate, a decision which is likely to fall within the balancing tradition.

However, Senator Biden’s selection as the Democratic vice- presidential nominee indicates that what started in 1992 with Clinton-Gore is now an accepted part of the American political system. Today, when a presidential nominee must add stature and experience to the ticket, traditional concerns of geographic and ideological balance give way to the search for moral and intellectual ballast.

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  1. […] 2008, it was no longer innovative when Barack Obama selected Joseph Biden of Delaware as his vice presidential running mate. Biden was not placed on the ticket to secure Delaware’s […]

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