They usually regret it, because I will give an unsolicited lecture at the slightest provocation. The obvious answer is that the position has grown exponentially in importance within my lifetime and the Cheney vice presidency (or co-presidency in they eyes of some) has made the topic particularly “hip” from an academic standpoint. All of this is completely true.
But it isn’t the complete answer.
In his final novel, The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Hollywood that it,
“can be understood … but only dimly and in flashes. Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.”
Hollywood is a complicated place, but it is dwarfed by the complexity of the United States government. Major political decisions are made on so many levels. The political science classic Essence of Decision gives a glimpse into this phenomenon. The author, Graham Allison (joined in updated editions by Phil Zelikow – of the 9/11 Commission) looks at the decision-making process during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He has three basic lenses to turn on the problem. The first is the rational actor – that is a unified state advancing its interests – in effect the geopolitical chessboard. The second lens is the organizational dynamics, the inputs and outputs of the major bureaucracies involved in the problem, which shape the information available and the options open to policy-makes. Finally, there is the bureaucratic politics model, which focuses on the policy and personality of the people involved in the decision – each with their own interpretation of national interest and their own “turf” to defend.
Yet Essence if Decision is a very limited case study. It was a highly focused situation over a specific period of time, which quickly took priority over all others, where the President had tremendous discretionary power, and many potential players were not part of the process. Most issues are far more complex and involve balancing priorities between an even greater range of actors including Congress and domestic interests. These problems are multiplied exponentially in foreign affairs because the bureaucracies and politics of other countries need to be taken into account. For example, I am currently reading Richard Neustadt’s classic The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective. JFK cancelled a missile program in order to cut the defense budget – but the missile program was crucial to the British because it was the only way for them to maintain their independent nuclear deterrent. Losing this deterrent could have led the British government to fall, and the U.S. needed its British allies on other issues and wasn’t sure the Labor leaders would be as helpful. But the alternative to Skybolt, submarine-based Polaris missiles, would hurt British integration with Europe – which, among other things, could potentially have led to a nuclear power Germany (this was written less than 20 years after WWII.)
In addition, decisions themselves aren’t single, solitary events and are often made with limited information. In the course of setting policy multiple decisions are made – some incredibly important, others seemingly relatively minor. Yet the minor decisions can have enormous consequences. Consider the “slam-dunk” of Saddam’s WMD? The major issue was whether or not to invade Iraq. But the seemingly peripheral issue of providing the moral/legal basis of the war was, at the time, not seen as a significant issue and made without rigorous analysis. When no WMD was found the administration’s credibility suffered a massive. What was the process in which a major possibility (that Saddam didn’t have WMD) was not carefully considered?
So, in effect, I want to get a glimpse at the broad process in which policy is made and implanted – the whole equation.
Why the Veep?
Sometimes an important component in the equation, quite simply, a key person wasn’t in the room. The VP is a relatively new guy in the room. From relative obscurity, the VP has, for the past 35 years, been a major player. But there is nothing inherent about this role. The VP does not have the power of a cabinet department. At the same time, the VP is not locked into a position by a department. The VP is a protean figure that is shaped by what the President needs. But the VP is also a highly experienced figure that can give the President a broad perspective that incorporates the political, personal (FDR was famously hungry for gossip), and strategic.
Seeing how the Vice Presidency has emerged as a power-base and been used, both by its holders and by Presidents, to advance fortunes and positions seems like an excellent angle from which to catch a glimpse of the whole equation.