Vice Presidents Collage

McCain’s VP Choice & National Security

In The Wall Street Journal today, Ken Khachigian, a long-time speechwriter and political strategist advises McCain on his VP choice, arguing that the VP makes very little difference in the election so:

Pick someone you know. You have spent 26 years in office. You have traveled with colleagues and political allies. You have spent long hours with them. You have campaigned with them, stayed up late in conversations, shared painful moments, heard their speeches, learned their thought processes, and measured their judgment.

Somewhere in his experience is a person in whom Mr. McCain can place the ultimate trust and confidence. And someone who can deliver on the central demands of the campaign — use good judgment, deliver a passable speech, survive tough interviews, and stay on message. Of course, he or she must survive the standard vetting benchmarks of tax records, legal nannies and a scandal-free life. After that, it is the knowledge that the certainty of a personal connection will protect the candidate from the mistake of learning something he didn’t know when it’s too late to make a change.

I couldn’t ask for a better launching pad for this blog on the Vice Presidency.

My interest is where the VP fits into the policy process, and Kachigian’s case for McCain to pick a friend is a very good one from that perspective. Presidents are either experienced Washington figures, or they are not. From Carter on, we have lived in an era of “outsider” Presidents (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43) each of whom made it a point to select an experienced “insider” Vice President. This has coincided with the growth in responsibility and influence of the VP.

The era prior to Carter was dominated by “insider” presidents and powerless Vice Presidents (think Johnson, Humphrey, and Agnew.) Reportedly, JFK wanted LBJ in the loop – but his staff didn’t care for Johnson. This illustrated a principle described by Paul Light in his Vice Presidential Power:

…the tendency of insider Presidents to discount vice-presidential advice. Neither President viewed his Vice-President as a source of information or expertise. Nor did the presidential staffs seem particularly interested in the Vice-President’s participation. Since insider Presidents generally bring insider staffs, goal compatibility with the Vice-President is frequently low.

This maxim applied to the most recent insider Presidency – Bush 41. Although he met frequently with Quayle, it isn’t apparent that Bush 41 (as experienced a DC insider as they come) leaned on him for counsel. Additionally, according to an article by Paul Kengor in Wreath Layer or Policy Player? The Vice President’s Role in Foreign Policy Bush’s staff – particularly Jim Baker – didn’t care much for Quayle or want to see him take an active role.

In contrast, the effective Vice Presidents have allies on the President’s staff. Mondale was close to the Deputy National Security Advisor David Aaron. Under Reagan, Bush 41 ally Jim Baker was the White House Chief of Staff.

McCain is a definite insider, with an insider staff. So if he picks some governor (Pawlenty, Romney etc.) they won’t have much of a personal relationship and the staff will freeze them out. If it is an individual with whom McCain has a well-established and strong relationship – someone McCain would be inclined to consult under any circumstances – then it will be harder to freeze them out.

Importance of being inside the Loop

Who cares?

When FDR died and Harry Truman took office, Truman was unaware of the Manhattan Project (constructing the world’s first atomic bomb) or the status of negotiations with Stalin over the shape of post-war Europe. He was not in the loop.

Eight of the forty-three presidents have left office suddenly (seven deaths and one resignation) and there have been a number of close calls. The possibility that this will occur again – and possible in the midst of a crisis – is real. An uninformed Vice President who was not “in the loop” could make a bad situation worse.

Fairly or unfairly, the “emergency transition” issue seems particularly important for the 72-year-old Senator McCain. An outsider VP will remain an outsider in a McCain administration, and if the worst should happen, he would probably not get the useful national security experience he would need to be effective.

So, from a national security process perspective, the United States would be well served if McCain selected a close friend and ally.

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