The vice presidency has been one of the most constant stories in the news over the last several years. First, Mike Pence was mocked for his relentless subservience and groveling to Donald Trump. Then, Kamala Harris has been criticized for the last two years for getting everything wrong. A few weeks ago, the vice presidency sweepstakes reignited when Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a noncommittal answer about whether Joe Biden should run with Harris on the ticket. And then on Saturday night, Mike Pence made headlines when he condemned Trump for provoking the insurrection on January 6.
All of which is compelling evidence that the vice presidency is the absolute worst job in Washington, D.C.—and always has been.
At a recent book event for Mourning the Presidents, Mona Charen asked a question about the vice presidency, since the position takes on its most significant constitutional weight when a president dies in office. I’ve been thinking about the vice presidency since then, trying to make sense of what it is, what we expect it to be, and what we should expect it to be. Here is the earliest iteration of those thoughts in written form.
The U.S. Constitution says almost nothing about the vice president, other than he or she shall be the President of the Senate, cast tie-breaking votes, and shall be elected by whoever comes in second in the Electoral College.
The delegates at the Constitutional Convention spent relatively little time on the VP. Partly because the executive took so much time to nail down, and by the end of the summer, they were hot, tired, and ready to go home. They were very clear to reject an executive by committee, and they knew there needed to be a backup, especially at a time when people died younger and more unexpectedly, but that’s about it.
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John Adams, the first vice president, quickly discovered the ill-conceived nature of the VP, which he called “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Nonetheless, as the first VP, Adams took the job very seriously. He presided over the Senate almost every day it was in session and initially tried to contribute to the debates. When the Senate made clear they preferred he keep his opinions to himself, he continued to attend the sessions in silence, but with no role other than the ceremonial. For someone who thrived on doing and action, the forced nothingness of the VP was stifling.
In 1797, Adams was elected president and Thomas Jefferson vice president, setting up one of the oddest (if not the oddest) administration pairing in U.S. history. It was the only time the president and vice president had actively campaigned for two different parties and there were real fears that the vice president would set up a shadow administration and destroy the government. Those fears didn’t come to pass (although Jefferson played fast and loose with some borderline treasonous behavior, but more on that next year when my Adams book comes out).
The very close election in 1797 also highlighted the weakness of the Electoral College as it was originally conceived. As a quick refresher, under the original design, electors selected two candidates. Only one could be from their home state. The person with the most votes was president, the person with the second most votes became VP. While each party could designate amongst themselves who was their preferred president and vice-presidential candidate, the electoral votes did not distinguish between the two.
Many leading statesmen observed the electoral returns and realized how easy it would be to produce a tie or for the candidate intended as the VP candidate to slip into the top spot. They wrote privately that they should really do something about the Electoral College before the next election—and then did nothing. Sure enough, the election of 1800 produced a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, which was finally decided in the House of Representatives on the 36th ballot. Only then, did Congress finally passed the 12th amendment which corrected the process to create separate votes for president and VP.
Even then, there was a glaring flaw in the system. If the president died or left office, and the vice president assumed the top position, who became the vice president? The Constitution provided no answer. Accordingly, the government was left without a VP for lengthy stretches of time. I highly recommend checking out the entire chart, but here is a snapshot of some of the vacancies.
This constitutional gap wasn’t remedied until 1967, when Congress passed the 25th Amendment and provided a mechanism for selecting a new VP. In the early years, I guess it wasn’t a priority since the VP was so irrelevant, but the country definitely got lucky. If something had happened to the president when there was no VP, I’m not sure the nation would have handled that transition very well. By the time Kennedy was assassinated and LBJ took over the presidency, the vice presidency was considered more substantive and prompted congressional action.
It might have been considered more essential, but that’s not to the say that the vice president was really important or well defined by that point. It was not.
The “Office of the Vice President” was placed under the Executive Office of the President in the 1939 Act, so at least the concept of the office existed, and FDR did assign Henry Wallace real duties during WWII. In 1947, the National Security Act placed the vice president on the National Security Council, recognizing that if something were to happen to the president, it might be a good idea of the vice president has some idea what’s going on.
But the vice president didn’t have an office in the West Wing until 1977, when President Carter and VP Walter Mondale were elected. Mondale reportedly agreed to accept the nomination on the condition that it be a real job, with access to the president and substantive responsibilities. Carter made good on his word, and later said “During our administration, Fritz used his political skill and personal integrity to transform the vice presidency into a dynamic, policy-driving force that had never been seen before and still exists today.”
Which is not to say that vice presidents didn’t have purpose before Mondale. Nixon provided important Republican credentials for Eisenhower and LBJ provided real heft and southern support for Kennedy. But once in office, both Nixon and LBJ chaffed against the constraints posed by the office.
While Mondale forged a new type of vice presidency into a position of actual responsibility, I’d argue that Dick Cheney brought it into the twenty-first century. Not only did Cheney bring gravitas and military experience to the ticket, but evidence suggests he crafted much of the administration’s foreign policy, at least in the first term. For more on his relationship with Bush, I highly recommend Days of Fire by Peter Baker.
So where does that leave us today? The Constitution requires the vice president to do two things: have a pulse and cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate. The 25th amendment added that the vice president must participate in the removal process, if they and a majority of the department secretaries agree the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” As the vice presidency has become a larger presence in American politics, we have added new expectations. The vice president must be loyal and supportive of the president and the administration’s agenda.
But they must also have something else. What exactly? Hard to say. The vice president must carve out their own agenda and achieve policy aims independent of the president, while making news in a way that is interesting and compelling, but not a distraction from the president.
Sounds impossible right? I’m pretty sure it is. If VP’s go too far in either direction, they are criticized. After serving loyally as Reagan’s VP for eight years, Bush 41 was criticized for being too supportive and weak. On the other hand, Cheney was accused of being their puppet master pulling the strings behind the scenes.
This conundrum is on full display right now. Vice President Harris can’t seem to do anything right. The very best way for a vice president to make it to the top job is to ensure the president’s agenda succeeds. Harris has shown nothing but loyalty, but she has been accused of too much ambition. Shouldn’t we want VPs to be ambitious? Doesn’t that mean they want their administration to succeed?
Her critics are unhappy that she seems to be invisible, but when she does take on big assignments—like delivering a major address at the Munich Security Conference—it goes practically uncovered. Critics demand to see her more, but what is they want to see her doing? Cutting ribbons? Does that really help?
She has also received important portfolio issues, including the U.S. relationship with the Northern Triangle nations, voting rights, and women’s healthcare. Of course, the Constitution does not empower the vice president to solve any of these issues. The vice president can’t pass legislation, unilaterally solve the humanitarian issues in Central American nations driving immigration to the U.S., or change voting laws in the various states.
Let me be very clear, I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t like her, or you should or shouldn’t agree with her politics. But, if you assess her situation objectively, compared to other vice presidents, she has the same constitutional duties and about the same responsibility. And yet, people really don’t like her. I suspect some of it is a woman in power thing, some of it is her personality rubs people the wrong way, and some of it is that the vice presidency is just a hot mess. Without question, President Biden’s age also plays a factor, because these are the types of conversations that usually take place midway through a second term, not the first.
With all of that backstory in mind, I think it might be worth rethinking the office in general. The presidency is way too big for one person to handle at this point. The president is the nation’s representative on the world stage, first responder in a crisis, national therapist, commander-in-chief, top negotiator with Congress, and more. Having a second-in-command would be helpful, but only if we have clear expectations about what that would mean. Is the vice president just an assistant? Or a full-fledged partner? Or a successor in waiting?
You’ve probably heard me say (or write) a million times that there are so many aspects of our political system that are based on norm and custom, and that’s largely because the Constitution intentionally left a lot of things blank or vaguely worded. Other aspects of our system, the framers just couldn’t possibly envision (like social media, television, nuclear weapons, etc.). And then there are the strange elements that they did think of and mention, but just barely. The vice president is one and has become the one that modern generations must face.
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“President’s Day Is a Weird Holiday. It Has Been Since the Beginning.” The Bulwark, February 19, 2023.
“How We Mourn Our Presidents,” Washington Monthly, February 17, 2023.
Can We Please Talk? March 6, 2023, “This PAC’s for you!”
The Thomas Jefferson Hour, March 6, 2023, #1537: Thinking about Statues and Monuments
Civics and Coffee, March 4, 2023, Mourning the Presidents with Dr. Lindsay Chervinsky
Axelbank Reports History and Today, February 28, 2023, #115: Lindsay Chervinsky- Mourning the Presidents
The Thomas Jefferson Hour, February 27, 2023, #1536: Jefferson and John Marshall
Authors on the Air Global Radio Network, February 21, 2023, Historian Lindsay Chervinsky on Now, Appalachia
Julie Mason Mornings, February 21, 2023, Dr. Lindsay Chervinsky: “Mourning the Presidents: Loss and Legacy in American Culture”
The Road to Now, February 20, 2023, #263: Mourning the Presidents w/ Lindsay Chervinsky
77WABC, Cats At Night, February 20, 2023, Lindsay Chervinsky: George Washington was one of our best Presidents
Converging Dialogues, February 19, 2023, #206: Mourning the Presidents: A Dialogue with Lindsay Chervinsky
“Student loan Supreme Court case raises debate over founders’ intentions for the president,” CBS News, February 28, 2023.
“Chervinsky & Costello (eds.): Mourning the Presidents (2023),” The Civil War Monitor, March 2, 2023.
March 24: Miller Center: Mourning the Presidents
April 3: The George Washington University Museum, D.C. Mondays: Mourning the Presidents
April 3: Massachusetts Historical Society, Mourning the Presidents: Loss and Legacy in American Culture
April 12, 18, 19: Building a New Nation
May 11: SMU Center for Presidential History, Mourning the Presidents: Loss and Legacy in American Culture
July 13: American Battlefield Trust, National Teacher Institute 2023
September 7: Virginia Museum of History and Culture
September 14: Valley Forge Leadership Forum
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