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Air Force Two or a constitutional inconvenience?

Given the Vice Presidential debate tonight, we thought this excerpt from The Candidate would provide appropriate background on the role of these men in the White House.

By Sam Popkin

When vice presidents travel the world on White House assignments, be it to a foreign leader’s funeral, an international meeting not quite important enough for the president, or a “fact-finding trip” to give them exposure or soothe a rankled constituency, they are treated as the second most important person in America. They can build up countless IOUs by making detours from their official business and lending glamour and stature at a favored politician’s fundraiser, their presence heralded by the arrival of Air Force Two, a traffic-stopping motorcade, and a full retinue of secret service agents, aides, and press.

But from the moment they are picked as a running mate, they are already a source of contention and power struggles within the presidential candidate’s inner circle, and are regarded by some of the political elite as a compromise (at best) or the lowest common denominator (at worst).

The eventual choice is never the choice of the entire party. Unlike the winner of the primary, they did not earn their place via electoral combat. In addition to facing resentment from the power players within the campaign, there is the scorn and enmity from those passed over for the position.

When the nominee’s campaign screens potential running mates, the list of potential nominees includes those just on the list for their name to be leaked as a quid pro quo for an endorsement; people included to acknowledge needed constituencies; and contenders whose inclusion might actually help the candidate seal an electoral victory. (Of course, candidates will always say that their only criterion for choosing someone is that he or she is qualified to be president should the need arise.

There are always staff conflicts within the nominee’s camp about whom to choose because the evidence about who can help with which demographic or constituency is never clear-cut. The murky data estimating which running mate-in-waiting helps the ticket get so convoluted that Bob Teeter “used to look for 28 electoral votes or some demographic bloc. Now, the crucial question is how the press and public reaction the first 48 hours.”

Indeed, the choice almost always obscures the campaign’s message while the press digs deeper into the running mate’s past and finds covered-up slush funds, state house corruption, electroshock treatment, secret payments to party officials, a spouse’s tax problems, use of family influence to avoid active military duty during Vietnam, inconvenient votes against legislature designed to court needed voters, or a pregnant, unmarried daughter.

When Governor George W. Bush asked Richard Cheney to screen his candidates for vice president, Cheney prepared detailed, exhaustive questionnaires that only proved, as former VP Dan Quayle put it, “Everybody has negatives.” Cheney, who became Bush’s eventual choice, never filled one out himself, and his own negatives came to light before the campaign had a chance to hear about them. No one in the campaign saw his corporate, tax, or medical records in advance. They weren’t ready to talk about Cheney’s votes against programs Bush strongly supported as “compassionate conservatism,” or that while Cheney was CEO of Halliburton Oil, they defied US rules against trade with Iraq. Halliburton refused to disclose Cheney’s role in controversial decisions, and the result, the campaign’s press secretary told Bush, was that “We’re getting our asses kicked in the media because we’re not prepared.”

The candidate’s staff has a vested interest in the choice of a running mate, too: the Washington hands and the strategists all know their roles and positions will be influenced by the potential VP’s staff and consultants. The professionals nearly always favor candidates with whom they have worked over the candidates they don’t know, and the policy special- ists are interested in candidates whose expertise and issue areas are likely to make their role more central.

“It’s a lot easier to kill legislation than pass legislation,” Quayle noted when looking back at his own experience, “So it’s a lot easier to knock off VP candidates than to actually get one through the mill.”

Once inside the administration, vice presidents suffer fresh rounds of humiliation at the hands of the president and his staff, to whom the VP has become a constitutional inconvenience. When they fly around the world representing their country, it provides great footage if they run for president, but only rarely do vice presidents actually handle sensitive negotiations unless someone besides their own staff — a cabinet member, say, or a senior aide to the president — is present to give the final word.

Not until Franklin Roosevelt died did his staff bother to tell Harry Truman any details of their negotiations with Churchill or Stalin, or that the government was developing nuclear weapons leaving the newly inaugurated president “totally uninformed” about crucial events. Lyndon Johnson was one of the country’s most powerful, accomplished senators, but he spent three years being mocked by Robert Kennedy and all the cool, sophisticated friends of the family. Kennedy told everyone that he thought Johnson was a mistake, that his brother’s offer had been a courtesy offer Johnson was supposed to turn down. Johnson didn’t even have an office in the West Wing of the White House; he conducted his business from his Senate office. Now, however, his old colleagues did not even let him attend the democratic caucus; he was part of the White House — albeit a lonely one — and no longer one of them. When Vice President Spiro Agnew tried to buttonhole senators on behalf of Nixon, he was publicly rebuked by the Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield for meddling; Agnew was not entitled to do business on the Senate floor: “He’s a half-creature of the Senate and a half-creature of the executive.”

Vice President Bush was an outsider, even a heretic, in the Reagan White House. Few of his friends, other than James A. Baker, the chief of staff, got jobs in the administration, and when he entered a room for a meeting, all the conversation stopped and the subject changed. No vice president can argue — or even politely differ — with a president in front of staffers without a leak revealing rifts in the White House, so Bush kept silent in front of staffers or in cabinet meetings. Then he was further belittled by stories that he “had nothing to contribute.” At least Bush, thanks to Walter Mondale’s office in the West Wing, wasn’t banished to the Old Executive Office Building where previous VPs had been relegated.

Every president does their best to have smooth relations with the vice president, but staff tension and backbiting is part of the job. When presidents don’t want to accept a proposal or do someone a favor, they instruct their staff to do it in such a way that they, not the president, take the heat. Whenever President’s Ford’s staff analyzed a proposal by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and told the president that Rockefeller’s ambitious proposal wouldn’t fly in a belt-tightening season, the chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld was the designated “bad cop.” Rockefeller was certain that all the animosity was motivated by Rumsfeld’s ulterior motivation — to persuade Ford to dump Rockefeller for a better candidate (him).

Who Are You?

The conflicts within the administration are one thing, but once a vice president decides to run for president, the way voters perceive him is quite another. Until the public sees evidence to the contrary, vice presidents not leaders but followers with questionable strength. They are no longer powerful senators or a successful governors; they are cheerleaders for someone else’s agenda. If a president is worth seventeen votes in the Senate (the difference between a simple majority and a veto-proof majority), then the vice president is worth only one — the tie-breaker.

Vice President Bush was the youngest war hero of World War II, an all-American first basemen, and Phi Beta Kappa at Yale. He was also ambassador to China and head of the CIA. Still, as vice president he was lampooned in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip as having placed his “manhood in a blind trust.” George Will gibed that “the unpleasant sound Bush is emitting… is a thin, tinny ‘arf’ — the sound of a lap dog.”

Samuel L. Popkin is the author of The Candidate: What It Takes to Win – and Hold – the White House and Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. He has also been a consulting analyst in presidential campaigns, serving as consultant to the Clinton campaign on polling and strategy, to the CBS News election units from 1983 to 1990 on survey design and analysis, and more recently to the Gore campaign. He has also served as consultant to political parties in Canada and Europe and to the Departments of State and Defense. His most recent book is The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns; earlier he co-authored Issues and Strategies: The Computer Simulation of Presidential Campaigns; and he co-edited Chief of Staff: Twenty-Five Years of Managing the Presidency. Read his previous blog post “Five pivotal moments from incumbent campaigns” and view his previous videos “How will Mitt Romney fare in the general election?” and “Who should Mitt Romney choose as his Vice Presidential running mate?”.

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Image credit: Seal of the Vice President of the United States. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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