Vice Presidents have arguably always occupied an interesting position in US politics. They are, simultaneously, the man who would take over should the President die in office and, to borrow a British political phrase, Minister without Portfolio. It was Theodore Roosevelt who said: ‘I would a great deal rather be anything, say professor of history, than Vice President.’ They are President of the Senate in name, but the President pro tempore has, since the 81st Congress, performed the duties associated with this role. The Vice President can, however, cast a vote in the Senate in event of a deadlock.
What the office of Vice President also represents, however, is the person who is closest to the President. This was shown no more clearly than in the Bush-Cheney years, when many sources seemed to suggest that there were periods in which Cheney actually ran large portions of the show, with Bush in more of a figurehead role. The collective mythology of the lead up to the Iraq war implicates them both in equal measure because their history concerning the controversy was shared.
So the Vice President also stands in a position of relative power, including the power to make the President look bad. When it was revealed that Joe Biden might have been ripping off bits of his speeches from former UK Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, it did nothing to help Obama’s campaign. The concept of Sarah Palin in a position of relative power under a President McCain certainly deterred a few could-be Republican voters.
But to look at the contenders for Vice President this time round, one might think the competition almost too trite; even a bit bland. Joe Biden is a committed, and has become a distinguished, Democratic politician whose negotiation with Republican members in Congress helped to create jobs and to resolve the deadlock over the raising of the US debt ceiling. His pairing with Barack Obama seems about as right to the American people as coffee and donuts. Meanwhile, Paul Ryan is a committed right-winger who seems to be on exactly the same page as Mitt Romney, having voted for two tax cuts under Bush and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). He is a supporter of school vouchers and is against gainful employment; a psychological concept which suggests that anybody who undertakes work should feel as fulfilled as possible by it to increase the chances of a happy, full life. There is no firebrand Deputy in this race.
Perhaps because of the economy, and the great burden which will fall – or remain – on the shoulders of the next President quite alone from anyone else, running mates seem to have become something of a sideshow in this current election. For Biden it is almost as simple as whether Obama keeps his job being the same decision which determines whether he keeps his. For Ryan, he terrifies the American left but is a darling of the American right. Nobody in this race, besides perhaps Obama, is being questioned about their commitment to the cause. Because what is in question is so policy-driven, the relatively personal and physical office of the Vice President will be filled by whichever man gets to follow their man into Office.
But one must never underestimate the power of the Vice President. When Joe Biden unexpectedly came out in support of same-sex marriage in May of this year, it forced Obama to say, less equivocally than he would have liked, that he supported it also. Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy’s Vice President, was known for his power in the Senate, but rumours of his being dropped should Kennedy fight another election only fuelled the conspiracy theories that surrounded the death of his boss, whose office he then assumed.
Neither Joe Biden nor Paul Ryan are large personalities and, in this slightly more unusual of races, not nearly large enough to eclipse that of either of the Presidential candidates. But therein lies the power of the Office of Vice President. Not often at the forefront of the media, their machinations can sometimes go unseen. The flipside of being Minister without Portfolio is that one can make up the Portfolio as they go along; a sort of odd-job man who sits slightly wide of the radar. Whoever becomes President will make use of that advantage to further their administration’s cause.
Image credit- Paul Ryan, Gage Skidmore
Joe Biden, World Economic Forum