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The Vice Presidency

  • Constitution established the vice presidency as a critically important but virtually powerless role
  • Vice presidents have few formal duties or powers
  • But they have to be ready to take over at a moment's notice if something happens to the president
When Theodore Roosevelt received the vice presidential nomination from the Republican Party in 1900, Ohio Senator and Republican strategist Mark Hanna famously remarked, "Don't any of you realize that there's only one life between this madman and the presidency?"10

Hanna's words proved eerily true: just over a year later, President William McKinley was assassinated by a crazed anarchist and Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the presidency. The fact that Roosevelt would go on to become one of our greatest presidents is somewhat beside the point. The real question is this: why in the world did the Republicans nominate him? And what does that say about the vice presidency?

The first question is easy to answer: vice presidents are most commonly elected for purely political reasons, to make a party's ticket more attractive to the voters. This often means that the vice presidential candidate provides regional or ideological balance to the ticket. Thus, in 1960, New Englander John Kennedy chose Southerner Lyndon Johnson (even though the two men did not get along). Sometimes, the calculation is more complex. In 2008, John McCain chose Alaska governor Sarah Palin. McCain, a moderate, believed Palin, a conservative and an evangelical, would draw conservative Christians to the ticket. But he also hoped that Palin, as a woman, might attract some of the disappointed female voters who had supported Hillary Clinton, Democratic nominee Barack Obama's rival during the Democratic primaries. In Teddy Roosevelt's case, Republicans hoped that his reputation as a swashbuckling reform governor of New York would bring some zip to a rather stodgy ticket led by the boring pro-business conservative, William McKinley. There is little indication that McKinley liked or even respected Roosevelt any more than McCain liked Palin or Kennedy liked Johnson.

From a political point of view, this sort of selection is perfectly logical. But what does this say about the office of the vice presidency itself? If presidential candidates select their running mates in order to provide political balance rather than because they believe they are the most qualified for the office or the most compatible with their own views, what does this say about the vice presidency and those who fill it?

Well, first it tells us that the vice presidency is both tremendously important and numbingly unimportant. The vice president has only one official responsibility: to preside over the Senate. Usually, though, the President pro tem of the Senate (customarily the most senior member of the majority party) actually does the presiding. But if the vice president wants to, he can bang the gavel and call on senators when they raise their hands. Vice presidents aren't allowed to participate in the debates (our first vice president, John Adams, a tireless talker, was frustrated to death by the job). But in the rare case of a tie vote in the Senate, the VP is allowed to cast the tie-breaking vote. Despite these occasional moments of importance, the vice president's day-to-day official role in running the country is minimal.

On the other hand, the vice president has an incredibly important function: to assume the office in the case of the death or incapacity of the president. When Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, Vice President Harry Truman, to this point largely ignored by Roosevelt and excluded from the president's decision-making inner circle, had to decide whether to drop the newly developed atomic bomb.

In other words, vice presidents officially do nothing but must be prepared for everything. The Constitution gives them no day-to-day responsibilities of significance, but designates them the official understudy for the most powerful job in the world.

Some system. Does it make sense? Some suggest that it raises questions about the wisdom of the Constitution's framers. Others suggest that it raises even more questions about those who would accept the job. John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt's vice president from 1933 to 1941, famously remarked that the office was "not worth a bucket of warm spit."11 One wonders why a powerful senator or governor would want to accept a position that could leave them on the sidelines of political influence for four or eight long years. Of course, the vice president usually has the inside shot at winning his or her party's nomination when it becomes available. But that requires a great deal of patience—or perhaps a morbid sort of ambition.

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