Today's question: The Constitution doesn't define the vice president's role beyond a handful of government tasks. What should be the role of the vice president? Previously, Edwards and Lichtman discussed how history might treat Dick Cheney and digested the current candidates' picks for vice president.
An indispensable role
Point: Lee Edwards
Allan, let's begin by going to the source to see what the U.S. Constitution says about the role of the vice president.
The primary constitutional duty of the vice president is to be available to become president should the office become vacant through death, resignation or removal, or acting president for the duration of any inability. It is a solemn and frequently invoked responsibility: Nine vice presidents (including Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford) have taken over the presidency in our history.
Since the ratification of the 25th Amendment in 1967, the acting-president provision has been used when presidents underwent surgery, namely during Ronald Reagan's presidency and under George W. Bush.
The only specific reference to the vice president's duties comes in Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution, which states: "The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided." There have been 244 vice presidential tie breakers, and depending on the issue in the Senate, the vice president can be a major player.
But he was barely in the game 200 years ago. Vice President John Adams, never at a loss for hyperbole, called his position "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." At the end of the 19th century, the vice presidency acquired new significance through the efforts of Garret A. Hobart, President William McKinley's first vice president, who was often called the "assistant president." Today, Dick Cheney is described by many historians as the most influential vice president ever.
Why? Because as our government has grown exponentially and the demands on our chief executive have kept pace, every president -- Republican or Democrat -- has come to rely on his vice president in a wide variety of roles, including:
* As a confidential advisor on issues, foreign and domestic.
* As chairman of key task forces, commissions and other governmental bodies.
* As a liaison with Congress.
* As a political surrogate, speaking at party functions, raising funds for candidates and handling the demands of elected officials and major supporters.
* As a stand-in at public events at home and abroad that do not require the presence of the president.
In the end, Allan, the role of the vice president depends on the president and how he chooses to use the talents and experience of the person who helped put him in office. Presidents such as Reagan and Bill Clinton made the most of their running mate -- George H.W. Bush was an exemplary vice president, as was Al Gore. Others, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, did not. Truman didn't know about the existence of the atomic bomb until Roosevelt died, and Kennedy did not include Johnson in his deliberations during the Cuban missile crisis.
Vice President John Nance Garner, who served under Franklin D. Roosevelt, once remarked that the office "wasn't worth a warm bucket of piss" (on Wednesday, Allan, you offered the usual bowdlerized version, "a warm bucket of spit"). But since a disgruntled Garner uttered those words 70 years ago, the vice president has become indispensable to our government -- an "assistant president" in every way.
Lee Edwards is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation and the author of nearly 20 books, including a forthcoming biography of William F. Buckley Jr.
Learning from Cheney's mistakes
Counterpoint: Allan J. Lichtman
Believe it or not, Lee, I don't strongly disagree with what you say; I just think that your approach is too formalistic. You don't go far enough in analyzing the actual role of the vice president in modern American government.
The key to becoming a successful vice president is to make a substantive contribution to the administration, as Cheney has done. But a president's No. 2 must also avoid the mistakes made by Cheney -- mistakes that have made him and Bush the most unpopular presidential and vice presidential team in the history of modern polling.
The vice president should serve primarily as an advisor and confidant to the president. Today's presidents live in a bubble, surrounded by yes-men and women and by political operatives who care only about winning the next election. The vice president -- who, as you point out, Lee, has few specific responsibilities -- is the only other elected official in the executive branch and is therefor uniquely positioned to provide advice.
This means that a vice presidential pick must be qualified to step into this vital role. And by qualification, Lee, I don't mean a silly, meaningless bean-counting of years in office. Instead, I mean a concrete demonstration that the candidate has thought through and mastered the important issues facing the country in foreign and domestic affairs. That's why it is essential for both Sarah Palin and Joe Biden to submit themselves to wide-ranging and detailed questioning by the press on matters such as the economy, global warming, education, healthcare, abortion and sex education, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and policies toward both friends and foes abroad. We can't trust a vice presidential candidate who remains in a protective bubble during the campaign.
The next vice president, moreover, must not make Cheney's mistake of taking over realms of policy, such as war and peace, budget and taxes, and energy and the environment. Vice presidents are not elected to take on such tasks. These policymaking responsibilities should be left primarily to the president and the department secretaries, with advice but not control from the vice president.
The next vice president must also avoid the Cheney mistake of operating in secret without input from the American people. Cheney's counsel has unwisely said that the vice president is not a member of either the executive or the legislative branch. By that reasoning, the vice president is exempt from rules and regulations regarding information and transparency that normally govern these branches of government. This approach makes the vice presidency a virtually unaccountable, undemocratic office. In fact, historians are so concerned about Cheney's autocratic approach to the office that the American Historical Assn. and the Organization of American Historians have filed a federal lawsuit to make sure that he does not simply walk away with his records once his tenure is up.
So Lee, I hope you would agree that the watchwords for the next vice president should be advice, yes; autocratic control of policy and information, no.
Allan J. Lichtman is a history professor at American University in Washington. His most recent books are "The Keys to the White House" and "White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement."
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Op-eds and editorials on the most important topics of the day.