On the Vice Presidency


“Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea; the other was elected vice president of the United States. And nothing was heard of either of them again.”

Thomas R. Marshall

When looking for a quote for this post, I found so many that are similar to the one used above. The Vice Presidency is considered by many political scholars a pointless role that has nothing to do, it just serves there to be the back up should disaster befall the President of the United States. I even wrote an essay about it myself during my final year at university, how the Vice Presidency exists only to be a stand in for the President other than for a few constitutional obligations that the Founding Fathers gave to the Vice Presidency to give the officer holder something to do.

While history paints the Vice Presidency as pointless, today a Vice President is an extremely important role within any White House administration. Starting arguably with George H W Bush in the early 2000’s with his Vice President Dick Cheney and then moving through into the strongest relationship between President and Vice President with Barack Obama and Joe Biden, this carried on to the current administration with Donald Trump and Mike Pence. The standing of the vice president has grown from being a back up to the President to being their right hand. The question is why? What changed?

To understand what changed, you need to first understand what many saw the Vice President as doing on the Presidential ticket, the Vice President served one function and one function alone: To balance the ticket. For example if the Presidential nominee was young and seemingly inexperienced, the Vice Presidential nominee was older and more experienced examples of this would be John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. If the Presidential nominee was a Washington outsider (as they were not familiar with how Washington DC worked), the Vice Presidential nominee would be a Washington insider the most recent example would be George H W Bush and Dick Cheney. As for what Pence did for Trump, he added governing experience to the ticket and legitimacy among the Republican Party while not a conventional reason, it still stands that the Vice President compliments the ticket. Other balancing checks could be geographic (where in the United States they were from), balancing gender or race and foreign policy experience.

Under the constitution, the only role that the Vice President holds by name is that should the Senate end up deadlocked (50-50), the Vice President as President of the Senate (the title for the presiding officer, for those in the UK it works the same as it would for the Speaker of the House of Commons) would cast the tiebreaking vote with the last one occurring in March 2017. No where else in the constitution does the Vice President appear, although as President of the Senate they are obligated to count the results of the electoral college so in 2000 Al Gore had to announce his own defeat in the election a month previous.

So little did the Founding Fathers seem to care about the office of Vice President that when William Henry Harrison, the first President to die in office no one was sure if his Vice President, John Tyler would actually assume the Presidency or would he just be Acting President? If the Vice President had to assume the office of the President, could a new one be elected or appointed? No one knew so if the Vice President had to take over for whatever reason the office would be left vacant. It took the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963 for the issue to be truly thought about and with the passage of the 25th Amendment in 1967 ensured that this glaring omission was finally fixed along with the line of succession in case of complete disaster. It also resulted in Gerald Ford being the only President of the United States never to have won an election to either the Presidency or Vice Presidency as he became Vice President after Richard Nixon’s first Spiro Agnew resigned and then Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal. The quirks of the United States constitution highlighted right there.

9/11 was truly a turning point in the world, it has never been the same since that day and that event has cast a shadow which children who are born today will never know or understand. In my mind, it was also the day that the Vice Presidency changed. President Bush was in Florida visiting an elementary school when the attacks took place and was soon in Air Force One for his own safety, with the President potentially uncontactable it fell to Vice President Dick Cheney who was in the White House to coordinate as much of the response as possible. In the days that followed Dick Cheney transformed the role from being the back up to being the chief advisor to the President, Bush and Cheney worked hand in hand from that point onward. Cheney was challenging his experience as a former Chief of Staff but from that point on, the Vice Presidency wasn’t going to be put back in the box.

Barack Obama when elected in 2008 had run on the promise of bringing affordable healthcare to everyone in America. It was a bold idea that many political commentators did not think was achievable, Obama had been a Senator for 4 years prior to his election to the Presidency, he hadn’t even served one full term (a Senator is elected for a 6 year term), he didn’t have the experience or political capital to use to pass it despite his electoral mandate. He didn’t, but his Vice President Joe Biden, a 36 year veteran of the Senate did. You will hear in election adverts for the 2020 election now that Biden pushed the Affordable Care Act through Congress, he did and he made Obama’s promise a reality. It proved the value of a Vice President.

Obama and Biden worked as a partnership during their time at the White House, after the Sandy Hook shooting it was Biden that Obama gave the task of working out how the administration could respond. When Ebola was a risk of becoming the global pandemic (how times change), Obama asked Biden to oversee efforts and ensure that America was ready. These were big responsibilities and ones that no Vice President before had, not even Cheney. In my view, it is Joe Biden that has defined what the Vice President can be.

Despite Donald Trump’s hatred for all that Obama did and stood for (at this point it is difficult to say this is just an opinion) he has come to rely on Mike Pence as much as Obama did Biden and Bush with Cheney. As the world currently battles the Covid 19 crisis, Donald Trump gave his Vice President responsibility for the Coronavirus Taskforce, a group of individuals responsible for organising the response.

Whether or not you believe they have done a good job is irrelevant for this argument, the point is that Donald Trump gave it to his Vice President. This would have been unthinkable when Walter Mondale (the oldest current living Vice President) was in office, it was also unthinkable during the time when the West Wing was being filmed in the late 1990s. When President Bartlet exclaims he doesn’t want to do something his wife Abby suggests they send the Vice President instead because “isn’t that what they were for.”

The timing of this post isn’t by chance, it was done deliberately and with purpose. We’ve reached the time in the electoral cycle for the 2020 race where the Vice Presidential nominees are being considered before being formally announced and confirmed at the party conventions (if they end up happening at all this time round). First let’s look at the Republican Party as this will be straight forward.

Mike Pence will be the Vice Presidential nominee for the Republican Party, there have been some commentators that Trump will dump Pence in favour of former UN Ambassador and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to counteract who Joe Biden will select as his Vice Presidential pick. I don’t think this will be likely, I am sure within the campaign the idea has been floated around but with Pence handling the Covid 19 response and being seen as the only hope the administration has right now, it will be hard to see Pence being dumped. (On a side note, keep a watchful eye on Nikki Haley for a run in 2024. She is someone who is very likely to run and do well.)

Now for the Democrats, the truly interesting Vice Presidential pick as there is no easy go to. Spoilers, but whoever the nominee will eventually be they will be a woman, Biden committed to picking a woman during a debate against Bernie Sanders in March and that won’t be a pledge he’ll break. If he did the Democrat base would be livid. Beyond that much, we don’t know for certain and while he is being pressured into picking a non white woman, he hasn’t ruled out any woman.

Before I go through some of the potential VP picks we could see appearing on the ticket there are a few things we need to consider. First, Joe Biden is one of the oldest Presidential candidates in history, therefore picking someone who is likely to outlive him is a must, therefore a younger candidate will be more likely. Second, Joe Biden knows exactly what it means to be Vice President as I said above he has defined what the role now is, he will have set his selection committee strict criteria. Third, they have to be someone who Biden has chemistry with, as a politician Biden is famous for not hiding what he thinks. Whoever is selected Biden will want to consider a friend, not just someone to help him get elected. So, here are my suggestions of who might be likely and unlikely to be on the ticket.

Kamala Harris has to be top of the list. A Senator from California, who served as Attorney General of the state prior. She too made a bid for the nomination in 2020 but fell short dropping out of race before the first contest was even held. She is seen as a good pick as she is African American, for her efforts in the Senate especially on the Judiciary Committee where viral moments of her against the Attorney General William Barr were praised by many Democrats. She is seen as someone who would compliment Biden’s weaknesses and would excite parts of the party which haven’t been energised by Biden being the nominee. If she were selected, her now vacated Senate seat would be filled easily by a Democrat not risking the potential tight balance that’ll be in play after the election. In many ways a perfect candidate for selection and should she not be selected if Biden wins in November, I would struggle to see her not being appointed as his Attorney General. While there are no glaring issues with Harris as a candidate, if she was a strong candidate for someone who could potentially be President, what stopped her winning the Democrat nomination? Is there something behind the scenes we don’t know about that might disqualify her? No candidate is perfect and while I struggle to find an issue, others won’t. It is something to keep in mind for all potential picks.

Next I’ll address Stacey Abrams as she is a pick who has been constantly being talked about, even before Biden announced his campaign. The former minority leader for the Georgia House of Representatives (for those in the UK, Leader of the Opposition in the County Council) and failed gubernatorial candidate for the Democrats in Georgia in 2018 where she narrowly lost. She too is African American and has excited many Democrats who have not been excited by Biden’s selection as the nominee. Abrams has been outspoken about her desire to be Biden’s VP pick and her willingness to serve if asked. There is just one glaring issue with Abrams that could easily undo her push to be picked, she has never held a national or state wide office, also known as she doesn’t have the experience under her belt many would want from the VP pick nor since her defeat in 2018 has she made an effort to change this, she didn’t go for the Georgia Senate seat up in 2020 and has faded largely from view beyond her media appearance to hype up her own desire to be Vice President. Another smaller issue is that Stacey Abrams hasn’t been tested on a national campaign before, she would be a risky pick that could blow up in the Biden campaign’s face. I personally cannot see her as the nominee, a potential cabinet pick but not a Vice President.

Elizabeth Warren, the liberal firebrand Senator from Massachusetts and former 2020 candidate for President. This is a very interesting candidate for the VP spot for a few reasons, first she was rumoured to be Joe Biden’s personal choice if he had chosen to run in 2016, second she would ignite the progressive side of the party that was disappointed with Biden’s selection as nominee (although seemingly not the Bernie or die types as anyone other than Bernie won’t be good enough) and third she is extremely effective at taking down her political opponents when needed as she did with Mike Bloomberg in the primaries completely crushing his chances of taking the nomination. There are some negatives to Warren however, while Biden has moved some of his positions to match Warren’s they aren’t the hand in glove that many believe Biden is looking for. Then there is age, Warren is only 7 years Biden’s junior many suggesting that with age gap being too small for this election, especially given Covid 19 and finally there is race, while people should not be selected or disqualified due to the colour of their skin many within the party are pushing for a non white pick and Warren is white. In my view Warren is an unlikely pick, she’d make a good pick but unlikely.

After dropping out of the race after South Carolina’s primary and then her endorsement of Biden days later, Amy Klobuchar was seen as delivering Joe Biden victory in her home state of Minnesota. The Senator was seen by many, including myself, as Joe Biden’s Vice President after those events. They share the same ideology, agree on almost all issues and more importantly would give Biden a lot of support in the Rust Belt, the area of the country Hillary Clinton lost for the Democrats in 2016 and with that loss gave Donald Trump his victory. Having her on the ticket would ensure Minnesota was no longer a risk to lose, Wisconsin would become more likely to win (and with it being seen as the bell whether state for the election being critical to victory) and would sure up Michigan which would also need to be flipped back to Democratic control. There are some issues that need to be addressed with Klobuchar however, first her race for the same reasons I said with Elizabeth Warren as much as I disagree, second the Senate seat she’d vacate if she was chosen and Biden won. Unlike California where even if a Donkey had a blue ribbon on it it’d be elected, Minnesota is far more vulnerable and if the seat vacated was taken by a Republican it could spell disaster for the Biden administration as I have said before the Senate maths is difficult anyway for Democrats and Mitch McConnell has shown he will never be bipartisan as Senate Majority Leader. Also with my own anecdotal evidence, many are struggling to see Klobuchar as the pick, while personally I believe she’d be a strong pick for the reasons I’ve pointed out, mainly due to the Senate I don’t believe she will be the VP candidate.

The final potential candidate I will be highlighting is the Governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer. She holds many of the same qualities of Klobuchar, she’d easily lock down Michigan for Biden in the electoral college and help him secure the Rust Belt for victory over Trump. She is a famous moderate beating out a Bernie Sanders endorsed progressive for the primary to be selected as the Democrat candidate for Governor in 2018. She holds experience of an office that is state wide, even if only for two years it is more than Stacey Abrams holds. Again as with Warren and Klobuchar, race will be a issue for Whitmer however it is a tiny issue compared with the issue that will ultimately mean in my view she won’t be the VP pick and why I chose to highlight her as my final candidate analysis. She is a Governor. There is the Covid 19 crisis and (rightly or wrongly, you choose) Donald Trump has made it so that it is the states that will respond and organise how that response will go. Michigan as of the time of writing is continuing to see a rise in cases and the state healthcare system is at crisis. Michigan cannot afford to have her Governor thinking about her run for the Vice Presidency, nor can any state especially as many believe a second or even third wave of the virus will hit the United States in the autumn. I sincerely doubt that any Governor will be the VP pick in 2020.

I highlighted 5 widely talked about candidates for Biden’s potential pick and there are so many more I could address, Senator Tammy Duckworth, Congresswoman Vel Demmings, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (a very very unlikely pick), Senator Tammy Baldwin. Each of them (excluding Gabbard) are good choices for Biden to pick and would bring a lot of strength and firepower to the ticket.

However there are many names I haven’t said, many names I haven’t even considered because they aren’t being talked about. I need to highlight that due to Biden’s age, he might not make the full term if elected which is why this Vice Presidential search is being talked up so much. But again also due to his age, Biden could only choose to serve 4 years in office with his Vice President being seen as a likely successor. Whoever Biden chooses will be given a platform from which to run their own Presidential campaign later, this is a reason people are watching and waiting to see what happens and who is picked.

I would urge caution at this point to anyone who has their heart set on a candidate right now, Vice Presidential picks are known for being out of left field and being an unknown name to America at large. How many people thought that Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia would be Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016? Or that Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska would be the late John McCain’s running mate in 2008?

The truth is we won’t know who the pick is until they are selected, we won’t know why until they are selected either. All we do know is that they will be a woman. Biden has only just announced his team for selecting his Vice Presidential pick at the start of May and while a shortlist has likely been made a long time before then it won’t be until June or perhaps even July until we find out who Joe Biden has picked to be his Vice President. But of all the nominees in history, whoever Biden does pick she’ll be more than qualified for the job, after all he knows what it means to be Vice President and he knows what to look out for.