Vice Presidents Collage

Veeps Present and Possible, Past and Irrelevant: Down the Hall Returns!

Down the Hall #5

About two years ago I started a newsletter on the vice presidency, focusing on the current occupant of the office, but with other notes about the vice presidency in general and the doings of past VPs. It was all an effort to begin building the field of Veepology (the study of vice presidents). I got derailed but am trying again. For background on this newsletter and the origin of the name, visit the first edition here.

One more thing – they won’t always be this long.

Veeps Present: Kamala vs. the Vibes

A few weeks ago Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker argued that VP Harris should step aside for the good of the country. Parker believes, as do I, that a Biden loss to Trump would threaten the very basis of our republic. It promises to be a very close election and Parker argues that the unpopular VP Harris is a negative and questions Harris’ competence. (Parker proposes that Harris take on a cabinet post such as Attorney General, which undermines the argument since, on a day-to-day basis the AG has much greater responsibilities than the VP.)

Parker is not inventing this issue. The GOP is highlighting the potential of a Harris presidency in their campaign ads.

This call to replace the VP is not new (see here and here) and the Vice President also has her defenders (here and here). GOP types both in print and some I know personally regularly refer to Harris as the worst VP ever. This seems a bit much given that we’ve had two VPs that shot someone while in office and another two who got into serious trouble for corruption, but haters gonna hate. There also have been numerous profiles and op-eds that wonder what has become of Kamala Harris, or why she hasn’t distinguished herself as VP?

Context

First, let’s just get this out of the way. Harris is going to stay on the ticket. Presidents rarely drop VPs and it usually doesn’t work out (dumping Rockefeller did not help Ford in 1976). VPs have their own fans within the party, as Eisenhower learned when he explored dumping Nixon and as Nixon learned when he wanted to dump Agnew. Could Harris step aside voluntarily? Maybe, but that’s effectively going to come down to the same thing. Harris has a constituency, will taking her off the ticket lose fewer votes in that constituency than they would gain with some other hypothetical candidate? There are voters who like Harris, but don’t care for Biden. If they can be pulled into the Biden camp, re-election is highly probable. Is there a VP pick that would attract a comparable number of undecideds and make up for the supporters of VP Harris who abandon Biden because Harris was dumped?

Second the vice presidency is an odd and awkward role, no one distinguishes themselves in the office Down the Hall. It’s The West Wing vs Veep.

Our last president to win a war, btw.

The VP who established the modern vice presidency as a power center within the White House, Walter Mondale, said, “The office is handmade for ridicule and dismissal.” George H.W. Bush – a war hero and a man of enormous accomplishment – was called a wimp after two terms as Reagan’s VP. Pence was mocked for mimicking Trump. VP Gore was always described as wooden and awkward next to the magnetic Clinton. (This did not prevent Gore from receiving more popular votes and a higher percentage of the popular vote in 2000 than Clinton did in either of his elections.)

Third, the election will probably not turn on Harris. The experts on this question are Christopher Devine and Kyle Kopko, who did some serious political science research (there’s some fairly complex statistical work) to write a book that asks Do Running Mates Matter? The Influence of Vice Presidential Candidates in Presidential Elections. They examine three criteria: does the running mate have an overall effect on the election (direct effects), does the running mate have an effect on specific groups (targeted effects), and does the running mate change perceptions of the presidential candidate (indirect effects.) On direct effects, the authors find not really, with the possible exception of John Edwards in 2004. Running mates are rarely such charismatic figures that they get people excited about the ticket. If they were so charismatic, they’d be the nominee. Targeted effects include bringing along a key state or other group. Here again, the answer is not much. The interesting exception is on ideology – both Paul Ryan and 2012 and Mike Pence in 2016 helped the presidential candidates with conservative base.

The final, and most interesting criteria is the indirect effects. Choosing a running mate is the presidential aspirant’s first big decision and it gives insight into how the candidate thinks and how they view the presidency. Choosing a running mate that appears “presidential” enhances public perception of the presidential nominee. A clearly political choice of someone who does not appear qualified can hurt. The obvious case is Sarah Palin and perhaps Dan Quayle. In her column, Kathleen Parker puts Harris in the same bucket as Palin. This does not seem quite fair. When selected, Palin had two years as governor of Alaska, six as mayor of Wasilla (which has a population of under 10,000), and four on the Wasilla City Council. Harris in comparison had four years in the Senate, six as Attorney General of California, and six as the San Francisco DA. (Dan Quayle, btw, had eight years in the Senate and four years in the House – that Dan Quayle was a reasonable VP pick is the Hill I will die on.)

Update and Caveat: The inestimable Carl Prine asks if these models change given that the Biden’s age raises the profile of his VP? The models also don’t really address a VP running for re-election. So it’s just tough to say and in a close election everything can matter.

Analysis

Fair or not, there is a vibe the Harris is not presidential, that this might have indirect effects that hurt the ticket, and that there is a lot at stake. In her column Parket cites Harris’ “cackle” as being unpresidential – it’s hard to argue with vibes. But analytically, Harris’ work as VP compares well to her predecessors.

The issue consistently cited as “proof” of Harris’ incompetence is her “failure” as border czar and her truly lousy interview on the topic. This incident highlights the difficulties she faces as VP. First, she – quite sensibly – resisted responsibility for the border but took on the task of addressing root causes of immigration in Central America. She sought to emphasize this distinction to avoid being tagged with the intractable border issue. This led to her failure to visit the border and that bad interview, which ended up emphasizing her association with the border. She made a serious political misstep.

This big early own goal has only emphasized her inconsistent performance as a communicator. The GOP loves to point out her word salads. There are also audiences that absolutely love her. She can be effective. She was also not helped by her early staffing woes, which have largely been resolved (I discuss them at length here.) Inconsistent staffing has probably contributed to her all too many moments that belonged on Veep. Unfortunately, even though her staff has gotten stronger, they still happen.

Meanwhile, her actual work on migration from Central America has been moderately successful. She spearheaded the strategy and implementation of the Partnership for Central America to address the root causes of migration, leading an effort which has directed over $5 billion in corporate financial commitments to the region, so far. (This has not solved the border crisis, which is driven in great part by the humanitarian catastrophe in Venezuela.)

On innumerable issues, Harris has done yeoman’s work, comparable to that of her predecessors. She has led task forces on rural broadband, labor rights, gun violence, and space – where her work has been significant.

She has also been an effective representative abroad, mending fences with Macron after AUKUS, representing the U.S. at the Munich Security Conference, and leading the U.S. delegation to the funeral of the President of the United Arab Emirates. She and Jake Sullivan delivered a tough message to Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz about Israeli operations in Gaza.

There have been few reported instances of VP Harris exercising influence on the president. This is unsurprising. With eight years as VP and 36 in the Senate, Biden is an insider who is unlikely to require the kind of advice a VP can give. Quayle faced the same challenge under Bush 41.

Finally, Harris’ political instincts are kicking in. While earlier she took on the Sisyphean issue of voting rights, where progress without a larger Democratic majority was impossible, since the Supreme Court Dobbs decision, she has been the face of the administration’s case for reproductive rights. It is a winning issue for Democrats and Harris’ active campaigning on it gets at least some of the credit for the weak GOP performance in the 2022 midterms. On this issue and others in her portfolio, Harris has a hot hand and will continue carrying out the traditional VP duties on the campaign trail (such as her recent trip to Arizona after the state Supreme Court ruling banning abortion.)

Harris’ record as VP is solid, lines up well with her recent predecessors. Maybe not lighting the world on fire, but that isn’t a reasonable expectation.

Of course, it isn’t about resumes, it is about vibes: appearing presidential is a mysterious quality. In his new book, The Commander-in-Chief Test: Public Opinion and the Politics of Image-Making in US Foreign Policy, Jeffrey A. Friedman finds that voters want presidents that support their polices, but also want presidents who seem strong and decisive. Friedman outlines how this leads presidential aspirants to campaign as hawks, which will earn them support even if the public doesn’t support these policies. In office, these hawks will then face pressure to follow through on these promises. Most Americans are not knowledgeable about the nuances of foreign policy. They want a leader who seems like they will be able to take care of things, make hard decisions, and pressure foreign leaders. Trump in practice is a terrible negotiator, but his bluster is mistaken for strength.

So is Harris president material? Who can really say? Except for Lincoln, Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and JFK Americans are divided about who were great presidents (and I’m skeptical of the last.) It does seem interesting that our first woman and first person of color to be vice president is seen as incompetent when the counterpoint is Donald Trump. Harris is sometimes a poor communicator, while Trump rambles incoherently. There is skepticism that Harris could handle a crisis, but we have clear evidence that Trump was an utter disaster at managing a true national crisis.

I think that answers the fundamental question.

Veeps Possible 1: The Veeprentice

Speaking of Trump, according to Politico, Trump and his campaign are thinking hard about his vice presidential nominee. We know he’s serious because he keeps asking guests at Mar-a-Lago what they think. The pick probably won’t be announced for some time, in recent years most candidates announce their running mate a few days before the convention. But with Trump, who hosted a reality show about hiring and firing people, you never know. Giving a sense of the carnival aspect of Trump’s process, he’s asking in fundraising emails: “Want to know who my VP will be?”

Innumerable aspirants have been mentioned. VP aspirants don’t campaign openly (see below), but they take steps to make themselves known to the candidate. In the case of Trump it is through pronounced and outspoken declarations of loyalty.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem
Potential Veep with a great smile!

I have no specific insight on who he will pick, but my money is on South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem because she looks like a FoxNews Host. I’m not the only one to notice this. There’s some weirdness about her, including an infomercial for the Texas dentists who worked on her smile, and a rumored affair. This may not be a negative in Trump circles. Besides the Politico piece cited above, this from the New York Times, has a good run-down on some of the possibilities.

Context and Analysis

Trump advisors state, as they must, that Trump is looking for a governing partner, someone who would fight hard. Pence failed to follow through on Trump’s illegal and un-Constitutional demands, so loyalty is paramount. Would there be a good governing partner for Trump? In 2016 Trump was the ultimate outsider, with no formal political experience, so I predicted that Pence as an experienced insider would be an influential, across the board advisor. I was wrong (I’m writing a paper about that.) If Trump were a normal person, his experience in his single term would have taught him that he needs someone with Congressional and bureaucratic experience to implement his agenda. He appears to have started to develop a bench of policy experts, but a good VP is a unique asset that brings together political and policy expertise. Fulfilling this role for Trump, who has tremendous confidence in his own judgment, will be challenging.

The other obvious question is whether or not there is a pick that can help Trump win. Here we’ll consider the Devine and Kopko analysis discussed above. Pence was a strong pick in 2016. He came off well on the campaign trail and seemed credibly presidential. Pence’s indirect effects were solid and he appears to have had a positive targeted effect on evangelicals who were skeptical of Trump.

The perfect pick according to these criteria and if Trump were a normal politician is Nikki Haley who seems qualified, is a solid performer, and who would be a bridge to moderates drifting (or fleeing) from the GOP. She’s been a vigorous Trump critic, but in choosing her he’d show maturity. It would be a presidential choice. Thus Haley would fulfill the main criteria of solid indirect effects, and might have even have a targeted effect. As an Indian-American woman and child of immigrants, Haley would be an appropriate counter to VP Harris. But it’s Trump. He’s not going to pick Haley who has pre-failed any loyalty test.

Some aspirants such as Noem and Vivek Ramaswamy might fail the indirect effects test. Ramaswamy is very charming, but basically a conman with no political experience. JD Vance is a strong performer with an interesting resume but has only been in the Senate for two years – although given the deference our society shows to white guys (from which I have also benefitted tremendously) he might be seen as presidential.

Kristi Noem, by contrast has two terms in the U.S. House and two terms as governor. She’s like Sarah Palin, but with appropriate experience. She’s been in public life enough that she won’t be a constant embarrassment (which may not be that big of a problem anymore.) She might get by as presidential, meeting the indirect effects criteria, but probably wouldn’t have any targeted effect.

Tim Scott, the Senator from South Carolina is another solid pick. He’s been in the Senate for 10 years, so he isn’t unqualified. He would be historic. While Devine and Kopko state the targeted effects are limited, Scott is African-American and Trump has been making inroads with African-Americans. In a close election, this might matter. Trump appears ambivalent about Scott though.

There are other Trump-loyal candidates who have reasonable levels of political experience – NY Congresswoman Elise Stefanik comes to mind. But Trump may not be moved by normal analytic concerns. He wants loyalty. He may prefer someone “shouty,” which he equates with competence. Finally, he has a penchant for people who look the part. He chose not to renew Janet Yellen as Fed Reserve Chair because she was too short to run the Fed. He preferred Lawrence Powell, who was a banker out of central casting. So the question is, what does Donald Trump think a VP should look like: a FoxNews Host (Kristi Noem), a younger version of him (JD Vance), or a non-white version of him (Vivek Ramaswamy)?

Veeps Possible 2: Joe Lieberman and the historical VP that almost was

Former Senator, and Democratic party nominee for vice president, Joe Lieberman died from complications of a fall in late March.

For this American Jew, Al Gore’s selection of Joe Lieberman as his running mate was an historic moment. It highlighted how far the American Jewish community had come that one of the major parties could put one of us on the ticket and it was remarkable, but not truly a big issue. In 1960, Catholic JFK had to explain that he would not be taking orders from the Pope (note, Joe Biden is only our second Catholic President.) Nothing similar happened with Lieberman. In our long and difficult history, no country has been as good to the Jewish people as the United States of America. There may be signs this is changing, but I believe that our core values and fundamental tolerance will carry the day.

Context and Analysis

From the standpoint of Veepology, there were some interesting aspects to a Lieberman vice presidency. Al Gore was very much a DC insider and in office DC insiders do not tend to rely heavily on their VPs. He and Lieberman however had a pre-existing and friendly relationship, so they may have been able to establish a solid governing partnership. It’s also interesting that Lieberman maneuvered his way to the vice presidency, giving a speech calling out the big Clinton scandal. There was merit in doing this, but it also made Lieberman an attractive VP pick as Gore sought to differentiate himself from Clinton. This is the challenge of all VPs seeking to succeed their President.

Lieberman’s story as a possible VP doesn’t end with the 2000 election. Lieberman established a reputation as a moderate, even conservative Democrat. His actual voting record was pretty liberal, but he was hawkish on foreign policy and friendlier to business than many Democrats. He obtained a reputation for moral rectitude. All of this made him a bit of a favorite with the GOP. In 2008, Lieberman’s long-time friend John McCain was the GOP nominee. McCain was running in the face of an economic meltdown, an unpopular war (for which he was an advocate), against the historic and charismatic Barack Obama. McCain, who had a maverick reputation that mirrored Lieberman’s, wanted Lieberman as his running mate – a national unity ticket in a time of crisis. The party grandees vehemently opposed this plan and instead, looking to get the public excited about his ticket McCain made the shoot-from-the-hip decision to select Alaska Governor Sarah Palin – which he later regretted. A McCain-Lieberman administration would have been fascinating. The principals might have had a good working relationship, but how would their staffs have interacted and gelled? A McCain-Palin administration would have been a VP nightmare as Palin, a talented performer, found herself in way over her head. The most apt comparison to Palin would have been Spiro Agnew, a woefully inept political figure, whose outrageous rhetoric won him a following among the party faithful. None of this came to pass. Instead, we got the (from a Veepology standpoint) a relatively conventional Obama-Biden relationship.

Veeps Past: Pence in Suspense

Vice President Pence has announced that he will not be endorsing Donald Trump for president, but that he could never vote for Joe Biden. This is something. As Jonathan Last observed in The Bulwark:

No American vice president has ever said that president he served under is unfit to serve. It is the most devastating possible observation from the most credible source in existence. Pence’s refusal to endorse Trump should be part of the context of every single story about this campaign.

Again I say: The fact that Mike Pence, Mark Milley, Mark Esper, John Kelly, and so many of the men and women who worked for Trump believe he is a threat to democracy ought to be the first and last pieces of context in Every. Single. Story.

Context

It is understandable that Pence refuses to endorse Trump since Trump called on a mob to kill him for refusing to overturn 2020 election. This was Pence’s moment of greatness. He was a skilled, but not exceptional politician. Unlike some of his fellow Republican never-Trumpers he cannot go the next step and endorse Biden. Does Pence think that he has some future in the GOP? Or is it a matter of conscience, that as bad as Trump is, Biden is also terrible and not worthy of a vote? At the very least, Biden never tried to have Pence killed.

Will Pence’s repudiation of Trump make a difference? Would a Pence endorsement of Biden help him? Tough to say. Pence’s own presidential campaign was marginal and gave little evidence that he has much influence. But at the same time, in what promises to be an extremely close election that will be decided in eight purple states by narrow margins his words could make a difference.

Analysis

From the perspective of Veepology, this move, this halfway show of courage, is emblematic of vice presidents. The history of VPs who mattered (as opposed to the ciphers who were most of the holders of “the most insignificant office”) is full of figures who were careful plotters who maneuvered their way into power. As was famously said of Martin Van Buren, “He rowed to his object with muffled oars.”

That strategy can take one quite some distance, but there is a reason they are the running mate, not the nominee: they lack a certain edge. They take a base rather than swing for the fences. Now, if Pence were to endorse Biden, get a prime-time speech at the Democratic Convention and use it both to repudiate Trump as a threat to democracy but also deliver a compelling and compassionate precis of a serious conservatism – that would be presidential.

Veeps Irrelevant: RFK Jr. partners up

In his strange and harmful quest for the presidency, RFK Jr. just announced his running mate. He had hoped to get someone famous, like QB Aaron Rodgers or former Minnesota Governor and professional wrestler Jesse Ventura. There were talks with former Congressperson Tulsi Gabbard. How crazy is RFK Jr. that Tulsi Gabbard gave joining the ticket a hard pass?

So instead RFK Jr. selected Nicole Shanahan, attorney, philanthropist, and activist, and ex-wife of Google founder Sergey Brin (her personal story of childhood hardship is compelling). This last is important because while Shanahan is basically unknown, she is very rich and has already demonstrated a willingness to spend on behalf of the campaign. She spent $4 million for the RFK Jr. Superbowl ad. If she’s willing to keep spending RFK Jr.’s campaign could garner attention.

Context and Analysis

This edition started with the statement that Trump in the White House could spell the end of the Republic and that the 2024 election could be extremely close. I’ll end by noting that unless he had attracted a true celebrity to the ticket, RFK Jr.’s running mate selection should be irrelevant. But alas it isn’t. Most of RFK Jr.’s support comes from people who would otherwise vote for Biden, and Shanahan’s wealth increases his ability to reach these voters. In a close election this could matter.

Update: Ivy League Professor/Educational Rapper/Presidential Candidate Cornell West has also announced his running mate – Melina Abdullah a racial justice activist and professor of Pan-African Studies at California State University. The idea of a ticket with two academics is pretty funny, expect very long campaign leadership meetings to feature a lot of statements that are “more of a comment than a question.” That being said, it’s gonna be close and who knows what will really make a difference.

Share this post

Search

Featured Stories

Browse

Archives
Categories

Subscribe To the Newsletter