Does the Vice President Matter?

The two most recent presidents of the United States, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have changed the way vice presidents have been viewed by the American public since the 1950s.

Consider the pattern that began in 1952 with the election of Dwight Eisenhower. Ike’s vice president was Richard Nixon, and Eisenhower was the elder statesman, Nixon the younger upstart. Eight years later, in 1960, Richard Nixon ran for president. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey ran as president after he had served as vice president under Lyndon Johnson. Walter Mondale ran in 1984 for the presidency after he had served as vice president under Jimmy Carter from 1976 to 1980. George Bush, Sr. won the 1988 election for president after he had been the vice president under Ronald Reagan for eight years. Finally, Al Gore–who is rumored to be married to a tree–ran in 2000 for the presidency after having served as vice president under Bill Clinton for eight years.

The pattern, it could be argued, goes like this. The vice president was often younger than the president, less experienced, served his function as a political asset, but was in training for the day he would run for the presidency. And it was that very role that paved the way for presidencies.  In spite of the vast political experience of George Bush, Sr., for example, it is doubtful he would have won the presidency if he had not served as vice president for eight years.

However, if one looks at the track records of the vice presidential candidates, they did not always do well in elections. There are more election losers in the aforementioned list than winners. When George W. Bush made Dick Cheney his vice president, he knew that Cheney would not run for the presidency in 2008. Likewise, President Obama knows that Joe Biden is not going to run for the presidency, regardless of whether they win or lose in 2008. So, the question is, has the role of the vice president changed? And if it has, what does this mean for the Republican presidential candidate in 2012?

I have been reading some of the commentaries on the Internet about the possible considerations for the vice president in the Republican race and many of them seem to believe that current Vice President Joe Biden is a very formidable opponent, in terms of debates and squaring off in the No. 2 spot of a national ticket. Considering the statements he has made over the last four years, I find this hard to believe; more importantly, this shows what the new perspective about the office of the vice president is. The vice president is no longer a useless eater waiting to see if he will be asked to replace the president due to death or illness, nor is he simply a political hack used for political purposes as the president sees fit.

The vice president is supposed to be the equal of the president, if not outright superior as an experienced leader. Dick Cheney, for example, knew more about the ins-and-outs of the American federal government than George W. Bush did, and this was seen as an asset. In years past, I do not believe this would be. Why then, it is now?

I think this is true because the presidents we have elected were elected with the understanding that they had not spent years in the Washington system. The last two president/vice-president teams have been a relative newcomer/outsider as president and an authentic insider as vice president. It seemed to give some conservatives comfort to know George W. Bush could consult with Dick Cheney on a regular basis. It could be argued that the McCain/Palin Republican ticket was a throwback to the previous older statesman/newcomer ticket — perhaps that is why it did not work.

For these reasons, it seems to me that many people are already coming up with pairings to run in 2012. Cain/Gingrich is an example. But considering what happened in the 2008 election to the Republican party with Sarah Palin, even though a lot of it was unfair, this question of the vice president needs to be taken very seriously. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul might be the only presidential contenders that would not need a Washington insider to run with them.  The No. 1 rule when picking a running mate, of course, is “do no harm” — we’ll see if the eventual Republican nominee abides.

Do not forget, the big rumor all along has been that Joe Biden will resign as vice president and be replaced. “Health reasons,” or what not.  Such an event could change the game drastically. We shall see.

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