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Down the Hall: The VP Weekly #6: Guns, Dogs, and Veeps

April 28, 2024

Given last week’s mega-issue, this week’s Down the Hall will be scaled back, at least a bit.

VP Harris wins on Gun Control

VP Harris is up to quite a lot these days. Most of it, to be honest, isn’t particularly interesting here at DTH, it’s important, but predictable. Harris is speaking out on reproductive rights and traveling to swing states. That’s what VPs do during the campaign, rallying the base, giving speeches, and raising money. One interesting item was a White House roundtable on criminal justice reform featuring Kim Kardashian. This White House is following the Trump White House in two regards: continuing their work on criminal justice reform, and willingness to engage reality TV stars. Harris as the former AG of California is well-placed to lead the first of these efforts.

We here at DTH are interested in all things VP (and similar positions… teaser alert, keep your eyes open for upcoming editions of DTH!) But we are most interested in how the VP participates in policymaking and decision-making. With that in mind, the interesting VP news is…

But first, there’s a disturbing story that a member of Harris’ Secret Service detail had a breakdown on the job. Harris was not in any danger; she was at the Naval Observatory and the incident occurred at Andrews Air Force Base. Secret Service agents are rigorously vetted, but the Executive Protection details are inherently stressful and the Secret Service has a reputation for trying to do more with less. Update: I’d be remiss in not adding that VP Harris, unsurprisingly, has been subject to a very high number of threats. Here’s hoping the situation is resolved. It does however give me the opportunity – another teaser alert – to post an analysis I did on assassination attempts on VPs. Coming later this week! The findings are surprising.

But back to VP-policymaking: President Biden assigned VP Harris to head the new White House Office on Gun Violence Prevention. This is one of many task forces the VP has taken on, and this one is having some impact. It spearheaded the push for a new regulation on gun sales that closes a big loophole. It has also established an inter-agency White House-led rapid response capability dubbed a “FEMA for mass shootings.”

Context

VP have often taken point on critical issues. They are uniquely placed to both add political weight to the issue and provide inter-agency and inter-governmental coordination. Unattached to any bureaucracy, VPs can adjudicate between them to develop a whole of government approach. George H.W. Bush took on several task forces for Reagan on terrorism, drug trafficking, as well as regulation reform. Gore was on point for security at the 1996 Olympics, multiple binational commissions, and of course Reinventing Government. More recently, Pence’s experience was perhaps less positive, leading the election fraud commission (which basically fell apart, with Pence distancing himself from it) and the ill-fated Covid task force.

Sometimes these issues are losers, and the president saddles the VP with them as busy work or because someone has to take the hit. President Ford assigned VP Nelson Rockefeller a CIA Commission to counter the Senate’s investigations into CIA activities. But it also sopped up some of Rockefeller’s enormous energy – which he otherwise devoted to trying to get the fiscally conservative Gerald Ford to invest in expensive domestic policies.

Because of Rockefeller’s experience, Mondale who with Carter established the new engaged and powerful vice presidency, avoided task forces and any type of line responsibility. He counselled his successors to do the same. But they were pulled into it.

Analysis

The establishment and policy accomplishments of the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention are obvious political wins for the president and the VP. Gun violence and gun control are bread and butter issues for the Democratic base. Besides the policy wins, this elevates a crucial issue to the highest levels.

Politically, smart, but is it smart in terms of process or precedent. Right now I’m reading Theodore Lowi’s The Personal President: Power Invested, Promise Unfulfilled. It was written back in the mid-1980s, so it has an element of being a period piece. From 1960 to 1980 the president was an office of great frustration, in which no one served two full terms. Lowi argued that Congress and the Supreme Court had effectively abrogated a great deal of their power to the president, who was now responsible for everything that happened. Along with this responsibility, a great deal more power was given to presidents, including the growth of the Executive Office of the Presidency to allow the president to make and implement policy. Unfortunately, Lowi argues, presidents cannot make most of the people happy most of the time, hence the impossibility of what he terms the plebiscitary presidency.

Good cause, but is the office really necessary?

In my dissertation I argued that there was no strong evidence that the expansion of the VP’s role was driven by the increasing demands on the president. Lowi might disagree, arguing that the expanded VP role became another tool of presidential power along with the National Security Council, the OMB, and the alphabet soup of White House offices and agencies. Considering Lowi’s argument, I may revisit this.

Establishing new departments and agencies is hard and usually requires Congressional support. Establishing new White House offices is a much lighter lift. Biden has already established several including the Office of the National Cyber Director and the Gender Policy Council. In government the term “interagency” refers to all the government agencies that have equities on an issue. There can easily be a score of key agencies with equities on an issue which makes it hard to develop and implement policy. I have heard that even before the interagency, just getting the White House stakeholders together can fill a good-sized conference room. I’ve argued before that while sometimes new entities are needed, the decision should be made with caution and consideration.

Do we need a “FEMA for mass shootings?” There is a Homeland Security Advisor to the President, she holds the rank of Assistant to the President (the top tier of White House staff), and presumably has staff that could coordinate mass shooting response. There is a domestic policy council to develop and advance gun control measures.

Let’s bring this back to vice presidents. Washington wise man Stephen Hess wrote to Carter and about upgrading the vice presidency, “resist the temptation to give the vice president any assignments that the president would not assume himself if he had the time.” Similarly, if every issue has its own White House Office, are the White House offices significant anymore (heard much from the Office of National Drug Control Policy recently?)

Trump Veepstakes

The New York Times has a decent overview of the main candidates to be Trump’s VP. Unsurprisingly (considering that Trump was a reality TV star of a show about hiring and firing people) there are a plethora of leaks, speculations, and twists.

Top contender (and my personal pick) SD Governor Kristi Noem is publishing a book in which she brags about shooting her dog. Seems weird (granted, Kristi Noem is weird), and dogs are popular. Except for one thing: Donald Trump hates dogs. Whenever he mentions dogs, it’s a pejorative. So this frankly disturbing bit of Noem-lore may appeal strongly to a very specific audience of one.

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VP Hobart, fundraiser-in-chief

One report has it that, fundraising prowess will be a prime consideration. Understandable since the campaign is far behind Biden at raising money and the candidate’s legal bills are extensive. This is not an unprecedented consideration. Fundraising is a primary VP duty. When Quayle and Cheney met to discuss Cheney’s role as VP, Quayle told him the vice presidency was mostly international travel and fundraising. Cheney replied, “I have a different understanding with the president.” But Cheney did in fact do a great deal of fundraising. When Gore was selected by Clinton, one of item in his favor was his fundraising prowess (it got him into a bit of trouble later.) Going farther back, Garrett Hobart, VP to McKinley (and one of very few VPs from the nation’s first two centuries to exercise any influence at all), was a wealthy attorney to the great corporations and financial interests of the Gilded Age. With his connections, he raised enormous sums that allowed the GOP to counter the national barnstorming campaign of William Jennings Bryan in 1896. Update: eight years later, in the 1904 election the Democratic nominee for VP was Henry Gassaway David, a Senator and industrialist from West Virginia. Gassaway was 81 years old and primarily selected because he could fund the campaign. He was the oldest candidate on a national ticket until this year. He lived another 12 years and was active till the end, btw.

Hugh Hewitt writes that Trump was considering a military figure, but now wants a solid business type like ND Governor Doug Burgum or Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin.

Another note in the Veepstakes is Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, a staunch opponent of Ukraine aid and a proponent of Trump’s worldview, just wrote an essay in The New York Times arguing against the aid package to Ukraine. That’s his prerogative of course, but it is also a cause dear to Trump’s heart and Vance made the argument in the paper from which Trump has always sought approval.

If Trump picks J.D. Vance, it’s kind of like the ending of Succession (spoiler alert) when Logan Roy finds a surrogate son in Lukas Mattson and his own children don’t get the nod. Don is Kendall, Ivanka is Siobhan, and Eric is Roman.

Context and Analysis

This is all hype and horserace. Trump enjoys creating this drama, but no one really knows anything. I mostly posted this section because it gave me an excuse to write about Garrett Hobart.

A few notes. Hugh Hewitt writes, “…I have repeatedly heard two names mentioned as rising in both Trumpworld and the establishment GOP circles…” He goes on to name Youngkin and Burgum.

Does that mean Trump said this, or is saying it to people and word got to Hewitt? Or are people telling Hewitt, hoping his column will influence Trump? Or, is Hewitt hearing voices in his head? We don’t have any actual information and all the evidence suggests Trump will drag out the drama.

A Trump supporter, Hewitt’s basic take is that the election will be close, the VP will potentially make the decisive difference and that a boring white guy (an apt description of both Burgum and Youngkin) is perfect. This contention (that the VP even matters in the election) is debatable but we are in uncharted waters.

Hewitt of course throws in some obligatory digs at Harris. His observation that “soccer moms” who are now “security moms,” helped Biden win in 2020 but will be nervous about Harris one heartbeat away from the presidency given the national security challenges of today. Poll data shows Biden with much stronger approval ratings with women than Trump. I find it hard to believe that absent a direct attack on the U.S., that suburban women find national security more compelling than reproductive rights (of which Harris is the champion.) I find it even harder to believe that these suburban moms will be wowed by the raw charisma of Glenn Youngkin or Doug Burgum, but in fairness I am no expert on the paths to the hearts of suburban moms (I mean, ask my wife.)

Update: The more I think about it, Hewitt is probably trying to influence the Trumpies not to pick someone ridiculous. The CPAC straw poll of possible Trump VPs has Kristi Noem and Vivek Ramaswamy in the lead followed by Tulsi Gabbard. Picking someone ridiculous sacrifices the perceived advantage of running against Harris. Based on the work of Chris Devine and Kyle Kopko (which I discussed in DTH #5) there is a logic here. The primary impact of the VP is what it says about the presidential nominee’s decision-making. Of course Hewitt’s argument for Youngkin and Burgum, successful business execs who combined have less time in elected office than Harris, speaks volumes about what the GOP considers credible.

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