Picking the vice president

President Bill Clinton raises his hand with Vice President Gore after his acceptance speech at the Democratic National convention August 29, 1996 at Chicago's United Center.  President Clinton urged Americans Thursday to march with him into the 21st Century with an agenda that disdains the "old politics of Washington."  Reuters/Win McNamee BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE
Editor's note:

Parts of this blog post are excerpted from Picking the Vice President, an e-book now available from Brookings Press.

We are in the middle of weeks of speculation over who Joe Biden will choose as his running mate. In the 21st century this is a different process. It used to be that vice presidents were chosen primarily to “balance” the ticket. But beginning in 1992 and continuing into the 21st century the past four presidents have abandoned the balancing model for what I call the “partnership” model. They have chosen running mates for their ability to help them be partners in the ever more complex governing process. Joe Biden himself was a vice president chosen in for his ability to help Barack Obama govern and so the partnership model will be very much on his mind as he makes his final decision.

To understand the transformation in this office we need to look back. Throughout history, the vice president has been a pretty forlorn character, not unlike the fictional vice president Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays in the HBO series VEEP. In the first episode, Vice President Selina Meyer keeps asking her secretary whether the president has called. He hasn’t. She then walks into a U.S. senator’s office and asks of her old colleague, “What have I been missing here?” Without looking up from her computer, the senator responds, “Power.”

Until recently, vice presidents were not very interesting, nor was the relationship between presidents and their vice presidents very consequential—and for good reason. Historically, vice presidents have been understudies, have often been disliked or even despised by the president they served, and have been used by political parties, derided by journalists, and ridiculed by the public. The job of vice president has been so peripheral that VPs themselves have even made fun of the office. Some vice presidents even used their perch in the Senate to undermine legislation that their president was promoting.

That’s because from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the last decade of the twentieth century, most vice presidents were chosen to “balance” the ticket. The balance in question could be geographic—a northern presidential candidate like John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts picked a southerner like Lyndon B. Johnson—or it could be ideological and geographic—Governor Jimmy Carter, a Southern conservative, picked Walter Mondale, a Northern liberal; Senator Bob Dole picked conservative Congressman Jack Kemp to woo the tax-cutting, supply-side faction of the Republican Party.

Sometimes, as with Carter and Mondale, these marriages of convenience worked. But often they did not. All too often the dynamic between the president and vice president ran the gamut from cold and distantly cordial to outright hostile. The result was vice presidents who were cut out of the action, relegated to trivial duties, or dispatched to attend funerals in foreign countries or to take part in other, largely ceremonial roles. If balance was the criterion for selection, it all but guaranteed that the office itself would be pretty uneventful. Formerly powerful senators suffered this fate. Harry Truman became a power in the Senate by taking on profiteering by defense contractors as America got ready for World War II.[1] He gave up that key position for the vice presidency, a role in which he was kept so far out of the loop that he didn’t even know about the project to build the atom bomb until President Roosevelt died and Truman became president. Lyndon Johnson, the powerful majority leader of the Senate, found himself suffering one slight after another at the hands of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, kid brother of the president.

All of that changed dramatically when candidate Bill Clinton selected Senator Al Gore as his running mate, thereby changing the model from “balance” to “partnership.” In the modern era, the office of vice president has developed its own importance and influence, beginning with Al Gore and increasing with Dick Cheney. It is not an exaggeration to say that these two probably exerted more influence on policy than all prior vice presidents combined. The partnership model has been the norm in every vice presidency since Gore’s selection. Unlike the fictional Selina Meyer’s president, Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump did call their VPs. They also delegated substantial power to them and treated vice-presidential projects as presidential projects. Recent vice presidents have reshaped the office and the expectations Americans have for the office.

What made this change possible was not so much the personal characteristics of Gore or Cheney—although they both were powerful and experienced men. The office has been occupied by many accomplished and once-powerful former governors and legislators. What changed the relationship between presidents and their vice presidents has its roots in the nomination process.

Changes in the nomination process itself have diminished the importance of balance on the ticket and increased the importance of partnership. Before 1992, when Clinton chose Al Gore, no nominating convention in since the 1950s, in either party, had gone beyond a first ballot. Because of reforms enacted between 1968 and 1972, the power to nominate a presidential candidate had passed from the party leaders and elected officials who became convention delegates to voters in a long sequence of primaries. The conventions had become a spectacle to be captured on television cameras in prime time and not the arena for serious political negotiations. And aside from the occasional fight over platform or party rules, the quadrennial party conventions did little business. Thus the biggest bargaining chip in the old-fashioned conventions—the vice presidency—stopped being needed.

This is not to say that the vice presidency as bargaining chip is completely gone. It is always possible that a future primary season will result in two or three strong presidential candidates coming into their convention more or less evenly matched in delegates. If that happens, the vice presidency would, once more, become the biggest bargaining chip when the deal-making ensues. But in the modern nomination system, primary voters tend to whittle down the field of presidential candidate choices and the likelihood of an old-fashioned convention is small and has been for some time.

As the saying goes, this is not your grandfather’s vice presidency. In an ideal world presidential candidates would not have to choose between the balancing model and the partnership model. And in an ideal world the vice-presidential candidate would be a person who could help the ticket to win and help the president to govern and be ready to step into the office should something happen to the president. But in the real world finding the perfect combination may be impossible. While it is too early to bury the balancing model altogether, the emergence of a different model for picking the vice president—one based on competence—is the sign of a fundamental change in an office that has long been the butt of jokes. The balancing model is not dead, but in the future vice presidents will be expected to do more to help the president—they will be expected to be a partner.

[1] See; David McCullough, Truman, (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1992,) Chapter 7.