Vice Presidents Collage

New Partial Paradigm for President-VP Relationship

I recently gave a presentation summarizing my research on the vice president and the next stage in
this research. My regular readers (should I have any) know that the central premise of my work is that outsider presidents find themselves relying on insider vice presidents. But I keep finding that I want to know more, what exactly is it that these insider vice presidents know that no one else can tell them?


I’m still wrestling with that question, with mixed success. But in putting this presentation together I did find a common trope that supplements with outsider/insider paradigm.

Policy & Politics
Usually, one of the two is more focused on policy and the other is more focused on politics. Carter, the engineer/technocrat famously hated to consider things politically – he wanted the optimal solution. Mondale was his “invaluable political barometer.” The Clinton-Gore relationship was almost the exact opposite. Few figures in recent history have had the kind of politically sensitive antenna of Bill Clinton. Gore, on the other hand, was the policy-wonk. The Obama-Biden relationship appeared similar to Clinton-Gore, with Joe Biden, a talented retail politician, supporting the famously cool and analytical Barack Obama.

The Republicans on the other hand seemed to elect presidents more focused on the politics, with vice presidents focused on the policy. Reagan was famously big picture, while his Vice President took on details. His son, Bush 43, took on politics, while his super-staffer VP, Cheney, focused on the hard policy issues.

Although Bush-Quayle is an outlier, since Bush was an insider who did not particularly need his vice president’s advice, he remained a policy-focused President, letting his VP tend to political affairs.

Seems like a pretty neat way to characterize the President-VP relationship.

Paradigmatic Problems
The problem is that this explanation is much, much too neat. None of these figures – who rose to great heights in national politics – can be considered unsophisticated on political or policy matters. It is more of a continuum, with Gore, Carter, and Cheney on a particularly hard end of the non-political and most others closer to the middle.

Still not happy, because it simplifies too much. What do we mean by politics, anyway? Cheney, was extremely astute in legislative strategy. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Carter called for an embargo on grain sales to the Soviet Union. Mondale, worried about the Iowa primaries (Ted Kennedy was challenging Carter for the nomination) advised against it. Carter thought the the embargo was the right thing to do. But he also thought the American people would ultimately rally around the president. Mondale had a tough time campaigning in Iowa – but Carter was right!

Gore was not a terribly effective liaison to Capitol Hill (he had served there for a dozen years, but was did not take to the place like Mondale or Biden.) But, Gore pushed himself forward as the spokesman on NAFTA and helped deliver the win.

It might be more accurate to say that different people absorb and process inputs differently and that presidents and vice presidents ideally complement one another. But that’s pretty generic and hence why we only have a partial paradigm.

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