The Post Cheney Vice-Presidency
Throughout our history the vice-presidency has been an evolving institution. For many years the vice-president served merely as the presiding officer of the Senate with little or no involvement with the Administration. Calvin Coolidge (1921-23) was the first vice-president to regularly attend cabinet meetings. Richard Nixon (1953-61) began a tradition of playing a more active role in the executive branch. His successors continued the tradition, although the progress has been marked by fits and starts.
A milestone was reached with the selection of Dick Cheney as running mate by George W. Bush. Prior vice-presidential candidates had generally been chosen to placate a wing of the party or to appeal to a segment of the electorate or a region of the country. While Cheney may have appealed to the conservative base, he was mainly chosen as a partner who could help govern. Both fans and foes would likely agree that Cheney has had significant influence over policy in the Bush-Cheney Administration. Cheney’s role has led to questions as to how his role would influence the selection of future vice-presidential candidates. Would a presidential candidate feel free to revert to a selection process which emphasized electability, or would future candidates be compelled to give primary consideration to the role the vice-president would play in his administration?
We have now seen the first two selections of the post-Cheney era. Sen. Obama has opted for a Cheney type selection with the choice of Sen. Joe Biden, a foreign policy expert from a small, reliably blue state. Sen. McCain has chosen Gov. Sarah Palin, who, he hopes, will appeal to women voters and send a message that the McCain Administration will not engage in business as usual, with earmarks, pork barrels and attendant corruption.
So what influence has the Cheney precedent had on these choices? While not raising the bar for all tickets, Cheney has provided a new rationale for vice-presidential choices. The Cheney model provides presidential candidates with a method to fill in deficiencies in their own resumes by permitting them to select running mates with expertise which they are lacking. Slim resumes have been a common characteristic of the campaigns of Gov. Bush and Sen. Obama. George W. Bush ran with a relatively little governmental experience. His foreign policy experience was limited to Tex-Mex border issues and what he picked up from listening to his father and his father’s friends. He used Dick Cheney to assure the voters that the team would have a seasoned veteran of Washington and foreign wars. Sen. Obama’ also lacks experience in foreign affairs. He hopes to convince voters that, if he gets in over his head, he can rely on Joe Biden to help him steer the Ship of State. Sen. McCain has clearly not followed the Cheney model. He has chosen Gov. Palin who has relatively little governmental experience which will be useful for governing, but may who attract key voting blocs.
Perhaps the determinative difference is that Sen. McCain has a record of experience which does not need supplementation by his running mate so he has the luxury of being able to choose a helpful campaigner. Sen. Obama needs to gain the voters confidence by promising to rely on his running mate while governing. At this point in the post Cheney era, it seems that we can expect the experience of running mates to be inversely proportional. The more impressive the resume of the presidential candidate, the more emphasis will be placed on the running mate’s campaign appeal. The sparser the credentials of the presidential candidate, the more likely he is to choose a Cheney type running mate who promises to “help govern.”