The President’s Hand

The Veepstakes are on! With Mitt Romney’s nomination as the Republican candidate for President highly probable now that Rick Santorum has dropped out, the punditocracy has switched from stoking the Romney-Santorum embers to speculating on who Romney should name as his Vice President. While the ineptitude of this year’s Republican presidential field might lead some rationalists to conclude that a party that had a hard time finding a credible candidate for President might have an even harder time finding one for Vice President, George Will has taken time out from Obama-bashing to declare that the Republicans have a deep field of talent that sat out the primary campaign, any one of whom would make an excellent Vice Presidential candidate. In particular, he names Congressman Paul Ryan and Governor Bobby Jindal as the top candidates for the job.

In between his frothings over Obama as “the Huey Long from Chicago’s Hyde Park”, a “reactionary liberal” (whatever that means), and an “intellectual sociopath”, George Will occasionally makes a good point, and indeed, the meat between the bread of his Obama hate-sandwich (flavored with a light dash of misogyny) is a decent point that vice presidential nominees don’t swing elections by carrying their home states. He points out that there is no correlation between a vice presidential nomination and winning the nominee’s home state: in the past sixteen elections, the vice presidential nominee’s home state has been carried by the overall winner six times and lost ten times. What Will urges is that Romney not take into account his eventual Veep nominee’s home state but rather what assets he will bring as a co-wielder of executive power.

This is a very interesting take on the office of the Vice President, as it does not conform with either of the roles the Vice President has traditionally played. Up until the postwar period, the Vice President was a non-entity, appealing perhaps to a party’s marginal wing at the nominating convention but not playing any appreciable role in the general election campaign nor in executive administration – Thomas Jefferson was a covert member of the opposition to John Adam’s administration while he was Vice President, Abraham Lincoln switched Vice Presidents without anyone objecting, and Harry Truman was famously unaware of the Manhattan Project and other aspects of strategy during World War Two until the very day he succeeded Roosevelt. The Vice President’s only real role was to serve as a sort of Crown Prince, the heir apparent to the Presidency in case the reigning President should die, as he occasionally did.

After Truman, this began to change. Richard Nixon sought an active role in the Eisenhower administration and later ran television advertisements claiming joint credit for economic policy. By 1960, John F. Kennedy was picking Lyndon Johnson as his running mate, in part to “balance” his Northeastern liberal candidacy with a Southerner. This trend of nominating a vice president with an eye to general election, not intra-party, considerations continued up through Al Gore’s nomination of Joe Lieberman on the Democratic party ticket in 2000.

That election was a turning point in the vice presidency, for while Gore pursued balance, his opponent George W. Bush instead chose Dick Cheney for Cheney’s prior experience in executive government. Cheney was chosen, not for the balance he would bring to the Republican ticket, but because he would assist Bush in governing. Barack Obama used the same logic when he picked Joe Biden in 2008, and Will is advocating that Romney make a similar choice for his running mate this year.

If the vice presidents from 1789-1945 were like Crown Princes, and the ones from 1953-2000 were Balancers, then perhaps we are now in the epoch of the President’s Hand. Like the Hand of the King in Game of Thrones, Vice Presidents over the past twelve years are subordinate to the President but play an increasingly active role in the daily governance of the realm. The President’s Hand today participates in war councils, helps design and advocates for legislation, and does all the things a President would do except for issuing actual orders; infamously, for Dick Cheney even this level of influence was not enough and he would seek to pressure executive officials into doing things without Presidential approval. And like the Hand of the King, the selection of Vice President is now understood to be the Presidential candidate’s prerogative, with party conventions playing only a confirmatory role in the process.

Is this actually a good idea? Crown Princes and Balancers understood that they had little constitutional authority once in office; it was the lack of such legality that helped to  arouse so much fear and suspicion of Cheney’s activities. Biden has taken a step back, not seeking to undermine the President, but remains a very public figure and an administration manager on Capitol Hill. With Cheney having redefined the office of Vice President, would a President Romney assert control like a CEO or would he delegate authority to a Vice President with more “insider” status? It’s hard to see how  a Vice Presidency undefined by the laws would be any more successful this time around than it was when Cheney pioneered the idea. George Will ought to think twice before calling for the elevation of a President’s Hand from one-time aberration into a tradition.

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About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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