The Curse of the Vice Presidency

Until the election of George Bush the elder in 1988, no incumbent vice president had been elected president since Martin Van Buren in 1836. (Bush opened his first post-election news conference by saying, "It's been a long time, Marty.") Yet it also is true that, starting with Harry S. Truman in 1945, five of the last 10 presidents have been former vice presidents: Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Bush. Death or resignation accounts for the ascensions of Truman, Johnson, and Ford, but each of them except Ford subsequently won at least one presidential election on his own.

Does being vice president make Al Gore a stronger contender for president or a weaker one? Until Gore agreed to be Bill Clinton's running mate in 1992, he was pursuing a different route to an eventual run at the White House. After youthful dalliances with journalism and the ministry, Gore had ascended rapidly, winning his father's old House seat in central Tennessee in 1976, then moving up to the Senate in 1984 and winning re-election by a landslide in 1990, when he carried every county in the state. In 1988 he'd made a presentable if premature run at the Democratic nomination. Gore was the youngest serious contender for a major-party nomination in this century, finishing third in a field of eight.

The nature of Gore's springboard changed dramatically in May 1992. Clinton placed Gore on his list of 40 potential running mates, had him checked out by Democratic Party eminence Warren Christopher, then kept Gore on the list when he pared it down to five. On June 30, Clinton and Gore had the sort of two-souls-become-one meeting (incredibly, they had scarcely known each before then) that is scheduled for one hour and lasts for three. The call to Gore's Carthage, Tennessee, home came shortly before midnight on July 8.

The roots of the vice presidency's uncertain political status are embedded deeply in the Constitution and in two centuries of history. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 created the vice presidency as a weak office, but also a prestigious one. The Constitution empowered the vice president only to be "president of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided." It was the election system that brought the prestige. Every four years, presidential electors were charged to cast two votes for president: The first-place finisher in the electoral college won the office, and the person who finished second became vice president. In awarding the vice presidency to the runner-up in the presidential election, the Constitution thus made the vice president the presumptive heir to the presidency. Not surprisingly, the nation's first two vice presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were elected to be its second and third presidents.

The arrival of political parties nominating not just a candidate for president, but a vice presidential candidate as well, rendered this system unworkable. The breakdown came in 1800 when, as a result of all of the Democratic-Republican electors faithfully discharging their duty to vote for both Jefferson and his vice presidential running mate, Aaron Burr, a tie vote for president occurred between the two nominees, and it took the House of Representatives weeks to resolve in Jefferson's favor.

The 12th Amendment, which was passed in time for the 1804 election, solved this problem neatly by instructing electors to cast one vote for president and a separate vote for vice president. But the amendment had a disastrous unintended side effect on the vice presidency: It left the office weak and, by stripping the vice president of his claim to be the second-most qualified person in the country to be president, took away its prestige as well. From 1804 on, talented and ambitious politicians shied away from vice presidential nominations. "I do not propose to be buried until I am dead," sniffed Daniel Webster when he was offered the Whig Party nomination in 1848. Ancient has-beens (six vice presidents died in office, all of natural causes, between 1812 and 1899) and middle-aged never-wases (George M. Dallas? Daniel D. Tompkins?) took their place.

Resurrecting a Dead Office

Although the vice presidency is still constitutionally weak, the contrast between the political prestige of the nineteenthcentury version of the office and the twentieth-century version is stark. Except for Van Buren, no nineteenth-century vice president was even renominated by his party's convention for a second term as vice president, much less nominated to run for president. Starting with William Howard Taft's vice president, James S. Sherman, however, every twentieth-century vice president who sought a second term has been renominated, and nine of them (nearly half) have gone on to receive a presidential nomination. Four nineteenth-century vice presidents succeeded to the presidency when the elected president died, but none of them was nominated to run for a full presidential term. The best of the four--Chester A. Arthur--was mediocre. The other three--John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, and Andrew Johnson--ran the gamut from bad to awful. In the twentieth century, not only were all five successor presidents--Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Truman, Johnson, and Ford--renominated for president by their party, but all except Ford (who came very close) were elected. As a group, historians actually rank them higher than the century's elected presidents.

The record of vice presidential prestige has been even more compelling since the end of World War II. Starting in 1948, the vice presidential candidate as often as not has been the more experienced member of the ticket in high government office, including recent nominees such as Walter F. Mondale in 1976, Bush in 1980, Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, and Gore in 1992. Vice presidents have become the presumptive front-runners for their party's presidential nomination. Starting with Nixon in 1960, every elected vice president except Dan Quayle has led in a majority of the Gallup polls that measure the party rank and file's pre-convention preferences for president. Again excepting Quayle, all eight of the postwar vice presidents who have sought their party's presidential nomination have won it.

The roles and resources of the vice presidency also have grown in recent years. The office is larger and more prominent than in the past--in the terminology of political science, it has been "institutionalized." As recently as the mid-1970s, vice presidents hung their hats in the Capitol and the Old Executive Office Building, arranged their own housing, and were forced to crib speechwriters from the White House. Today they enjoy a large and professional staff, a West Wing office, a separate line item in the executive budget, and a grand official residence--the Admiral's House at the Naval Observatory. The office also has been institutionalized in the broader sense that more--and more substantial--vice presidential activities are now taken for granted. These include regular private meetings with the president, a wide-ranging role as senior presidential adviser, membership on the National Security Council, full intelligence briefings, access to the Oval Office paper flow, public advocacy of the administration's programs and leadership, a leadership role in the party second only to the president, sensitive diplomatic missions, attendance at cabinet meetings, and serving as a presidential liaison to congressional leaders and interest groups.

The reasons for the enhanced status of the vice presidency in government and politics are several. At the turn of the twentieth century, the rise of national news media (mass circulation magazines and newspaper wire services) and a new style of active political campaigning elevated the visibility and prestige of the vice president, which made the office more appealing to a better class of political leaders. In the 1900 election, the Republican nominee, Theodore Roosevelt, won widespread publicity and accumulated political IOUs from local politicians in nearly every state by becoming the first vice presidential candidate in history to campaign vigorously across the country. During the 1920s and 1930s, the roster of vice presidents included a speaker of the House, a Senate majority leader, and a Nobel Prize-winning cabinet member.

In 1940 Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had run (and lost) for vice president himself in 1920, successfully claimed for presidential candidates the right to name their running mates. In the past, party leaders had made that decision. They typically used it to pair the nominee for president with a vice presidential candidate from the opposite wing of the party, thereby discouraging the president from ever trusting the vice president personally or entrusting him with useful responsibilities in office. Voters want vice presidents to be loyal to the president as much as presidents do. This allows the president to choose his running mate virtually assured that such loyalty would be forthcoming.

Finally, after 1945, the combination of Truman's woefully unprepared succession to the presidency when Roosevelt died (Truman was at best dimly aware of the existence of the atom bomb and the Allies' plans for the postwar world) and the proliferation of nuclear weapons heightened public concern that the vice president be a leader who is ready and able to step into the presidency at a moment's notice.

A Vice Presidential Constitution

As voters increasingly have come to judge vice presidential nominees by their fitness to succeed to the presidency, most candidates for president have learned that, in filling the second slot on the ticket, they can do well politically by doing good for the country. As Hamilton Jordan put it in a 1976 memo to his candidate, Jimmy Carter, "The best politics is to select a person who is accurately perceived by the American people as being qualified and able to serve as president if that should become necessary."

The Constitution has been altered during the last halfcentury in ways that have redounded to the benefit of vice presidents. The 25th Amendment, which was enacted in 1967, focused almost entirely on the vice presidency. The amendment declared, at last, that when the president dies, resigns, or is removed from office, "the Vice President shall become President" for the remainder of the four-year term. Vice presidents--nine in all (how's that for a stepping-stone to the presidency?)--had been doing exactly that since John Tyler, upon William Henry Harrison's untimely death (after one month in office) in 1841, declared himself president rather than acting president, ignoring the considerable congressional grumbling that ensued. At the time, this move had almost the character of a coup, since many thought the vice president had the right to serve only as interim chief executive until a special election could be called.

Indeed, until the 25th Amendment was enacted, the language of the Constitution remained vague enough to admit just that interpretation. James Madison's extensive notes of the debates at the Constitutional Convention indicate that a special presidential election was the framers' true intention. The key phrase that ended up in Article II of the original Constitution said that if the president dies, resigns, is removed by impeachment, or is unable "to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President." The Same what? The president's "Powers and Duties" or "the said Office"--that is, the presidency itself? The framers meant only the powers and duties and only in a custodial capacity, but through careless drafting they did not say so clearly in the final text. Because Madison had embargoed his papers, his notes of the convention were not yet in circulation when Harrison died, and all the delegates were dead. Tyler's stubbornness constituted a successful fait accompli that set the precedent for all of his successors to follow. But it took the 25th Amendment to settle the succession question once and for all.

The amendment did more than tidy up a constitutional infelicity. It also made the vice president the crucial actor in determining whether a president is disabled: Unless the vice president agrees that the president is physically or mentally unable to serve, nothing can be done. Finally, the amendment provided that whenever the vice presidency becomes vacant (by 1967, this had happened 16 times during the nation's first 36 presidencies), the president will nominate a new vice president with congressional confirmation. So prestigious had the vice presidency become that in 1976, Americans barely noticed that their national bicentennial celebration was presided over by two men, President Ford and Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller, who had attained their offices not through election but by being appointed vice president.

Equally significant in constitutional terms was the 22nd Amendment, which imposed a two-term limit on the president in 1951. Just as nobody had meant to damage the vice presidency politically with the enactment of the 12th Amendment in 1804, nobody was trying to enhance the vice president's political status when the 22nd Amendment limited presidential tenure. But the two-term limit made it possible for the vice president to step forward as a presidential candidate early in the president's second term, rather than wait in the wings until the president decided what he wanted to do. All three vice presidents who have served second-term presidents since the 22nd Amendment was enacted have made good use of this opportunity: Nixon in 1960, Bush in 1988, and now Gore.

In all, Gore inherited an impressive office when he became vice president in 1993. He has contributed to the power and prestige of the office as well: heading the administration's reinventing government initiative, serving as an important diplomatic channel to Russia and other former Soviet republics, filling the bureaucracy with political allies, deflating strong opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement when he shredded Ross Perot in a televised debate, developing the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and persuading Congress to pass it, and stiffening the president's spine at crucial moments. "You can get with the goddamn program!" Gore famously told Clinton when the president was vacillating on his 1993 economic plan--and Clinton did. The conventional wisdom about the Gore vice presidency is absolutely true. No vice president in history has been more influential.

Still, the question remains: Is being vice president a blessing or a curse for a talented political leader like Gore who is trying to win the presidency? The answer comes in two parts, with the easy part first. Service as vice president is clearly the most direct route to winning a party's presidential nomination. There is a downside to the vice presidency, of course, especially the certain prospect of being a steady source of merriment for late-night television comedians. But consider what vice presidents seeking to be nominated for president have going for them.

In addition to the opportunity for early fundraising and organization-building that the 22nd Amendment affords and the likelihood that the vice president is already a leader of some stature, vice presidents derive two other benefits from the office in their pursuit of a presidential nomination. The first is that their ongoing activities as party leader--campaigning across the country during elections, raising funds at other times--and as public advocate of the administration and its policies uniquely situate them to win friends among the political activists who typically dominate the nominating process. (Such campaigning also is good experience for a presidential candidacy.) Second, the recent growth in the governmental responsibilities and resources of the vice presidency has made it a more prestigious position and thus a more plausible stepping-stone to the presidency. Substantive matters like international diplomacy and symbolic ones like the trappings of the office--not just the mansion and Air Force Two, but even the new vice presidential seal that displays an eagle, wings spread, with a claw full of arrows and a starburst at its head (the eagle in the old seal seemed rather sedentary)--attest to the prestige of the office.

Altogether, the modern vice president typically is an experienced and talented political leader who is loyal to the president and admired by the party--an ideal formula for securing a presidential nomination and one that Gore executed skillfully this spring. Exit surveys during the Democratic primaries and caucuses showed Gore winning overwhelming support from voters who approved of Clinton's performance as president. Needless to say, such voters made up the vast majority of those who turned out at the polls. Gore's worst moment in the nomination campaign was, in a sense, the exception that demonstrated the rule. The vice president's zeal as a fundraiser for Clinton and the Democratic National Committee in 1995 and 1996 ("Is it possible to do a reallocation for me to take more of the events and the calls?" he asked in a memo) gave former Senator Bill Bradley an opening among independent voters last fall. But it also strengthened Gore's bond with Democratic activists, which turned out to be much more important.

Loyal to a Fault

Winning the party's nomination for president is no small thing, but it is not the main thing. For all their advantages in getting nominated, vice presidents have had an unusually hard time closing the deal in November. To be sure, the so-called Van Buren syndrome can be overstated: Of the 34 vice presidents who served between Van Buren and Bush, only seven even tried to run for president, and two of them--Nixon in 1960 and Humphrey in 1968--came very close to winning. But vice presidents carry burdens into the fall campaign that are as firmly grounded in their office as the advantages they bring to a nominating contest.

Indeed, some of the activities of the modern vice presidency that are most appealing to party activists may repel other voters. Days and nights spent fertilizing the party's grass roots with fervent, sometimes slashing rhetoric can alienate those who look to the presidency for leadership that unifies rather than divides. Gore's blurt to a postimpeachment rally of Democratic congressmen that Clinton "will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest presidents" doubtless warmed the cockles of yellow dog Democratic hearts, but it seemed wildly excessive to almost everyone else. The woodenness that many people attribute to Gore is partly an artifact of the hundreds of vice presidential moments he has spent standing motionless and silent in the background while Clinton has spoken animatedly to the cameras.

Certain institutional qualities of the modern vice presidency also handicap the vice president turned presidential candidate. Vice presidents seldom get to take credit for the successes of the administration: That is a presidential prerogative. But they can count on being attacked for all of the administration's shortcomings. Such attacks allow no effective response. A vice president who tries to stand apart from the White House will alienate the president and cause voters to wonder why the criticisms were not voiced earlier. Gore did himself no good, for example, when he spent the evening of his official announcement for president telling the 20/20 audience that Clinton's behavior in the Monica Lewinsky affair was "inexcusable" or when he later dissented from administration policy on Elián Gonzalez. A vice president's difficulties are only compounded when it comes to matters of substantive public policy. Let Gore offer a new proposal, and Bush demands to know why he has hidden it under his hat until now.

Vice presidents can always say that loyalty to the president forecloses public disagreement, but that course is no less perilous politically. The public that values loyalty in a vice president disdains that quality as soon as he bids to become president. Strength, vision, and independence are what people look for then--the very qualities that vice presidents almost never get to display. Polls that show Gore trailing Bush by around 20 percentage points in the category of leadership are less about Bush and Gore than about the vice presidency. Bush's father trailed Michael S. Dukakis by a similar margin in the summer of 1988.

The political handicaps that vice presidents carry into the general election are considerable. They need not be insurmountable. As with all things vice presidential, much depends on the presidents they serve.

One of the main reasons that Nixon and Humphrey lost, for example, is that their presidents were so unhelpful. Every Poli Sci 100 student knows what Dwight D. Eisenhower said when a reporter asked him to name a single "major idea of [Nixon's] you had adopted" as president: "If you give me a week, I might think of one." (Less well-known is that a week later, Eisenhower still had nothing to say.) Johnson treated Humphrey with all the spitefulness of which he was capable as soon as it became clear that the Democratic convention was not going to draft him for another term despite his earlier withdrawal from the race. In true vice presidential style, Humphrey carried Johnson's water on Vietnam for four years, only to have the president threaten repeatedly that if he broke even slightly with the administration line, there would be political hell to pay. When Humphrey, ignoring yet another Johnson warning, finally did speak out in favor of a bombing pause just five weeks before the election, his poll numbers began a steep ascent. As Humphrey later said, he didn't lose the election to Nixon; he just ran out of time.

In contrast, Van Buren benefited enormously from his association with President Andrew Jackson, who regarded his vice president's election to the presidency as validation of the transformation he had wrought in American politics. Ronald Reagan was equally committed to Bush's success, putting ego aside to praise (even inflate) the vice president's contributions to what the president began calling the "Reagan-Bush administration." Reagan's popularity was of even greater benefit to his vice president. Bush won the votes of 80 percent of those who approved of Reagan's performance as president; he lost nine-to-one among those who disapproved. Eighty percent of many is more than 90 percent of few: Bush was elected.

Clinton combines Jackson's belief that his legacy is closely tied to his vice president's political success with Reaganesque approval ratings. If there is such a thing as "Clinton fatigue," it must be the exhaustion felt by those who have always hated him but have never been able to persuade the rest of the country that they are right. Clinton's job approval rating has been in the 60 percent-plus range for nearly four years--the highest and most enduring numbers for a second-term president in the history of polling. He has made it clear that all of his vast political talents are at Gore's disposal from now until November--including his ability, not often seen, to shine the spotlight on someone other than himself. Much to Clinton's credit, he remained steadfast last fall when Gore, in full panic mode, sometimes went out of his way to distance himself from the president.

As much as they will help, though, Clinton's efforts and popularity will not be enough to elect Gore. At the end of the day, candidates for president win or lose their own elections. "You're number two," says Gore, "and whether it's in politics or business or the professions, you have to make a transition from being number two to number one." But the president's assistance, joined with full use of the advantages the vice president derives from his own office, suggests that Gore's decision to seek the vice presidency instead of staying in the Senate eight years ago was his best available avenue to the White House.

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