So who plans on watching tonight’s vice-presidential debate? I posed this question this morning to my capstone class for senior history majors. Of the fifteen students present, fourteen answered “no.” The fifteenth refused to commit either way, suggesting that he might “stream it online” while doing homework. Intrigued (though not surprised) by this lack of interest, I asked the class how many of them could name the vice-presidential nominees of the two major parties. Six of fifteen could do so. I don’t judge them. I often forget who our sitting vice-president is.
Should we care about tonight’s debate or be at all influenced by its outcome? If you feel a profound ambivalence, you’re in good company, and you have good reason. On the one hand, we know that the vice-president is only “a heartbeat away” from the most powerful office in the land. In an election when both presidential candidates are pushing seventy, this is no insignificant matter. And yet the vice-president’s Constitutional role is otherwise so limited and ill-defined as to be irrelevant. In modern times, the VP’s most important role comes during the general election, when his job is to balance the ticket by appealing to constituencies that his running-mate struggles with. Once the ticket is elected, the VP’s constitutional role is to serve as president of the Senate, but unless the Senate is deadlocked, the vice-president does not vote and filsl a role that is largely ceremonial. In sum, as President Woodrow Wilson acidly put it, the vice-president’s only real significance lies “in the fact that he may cease to be vice-president.”
Our nation’s very first vice-president discovered this quickly. John Adams initially looked on the office of vice-president as tantamount to a republican version of the “crown prince,” i.e., as the office reserved for the “heir apparent” to the presidency. But George Washington interpreted the Constitution as defining the vice-president as, at least technically, a member of the legislative branch (he is president of the Senate, after all), and determined that it would be improper to include Adams in the cabinet’s deliberations. The Father of our Country reasoned that allowing the president of the Senate to play a substantive role in the executive branch would effectively undermine the Constitutional separation of powers of the two branches. As a result, Adams came to think of the office of vice-president as politically akin to being buried alive. As he wrote to his wife Abigail near the beginning of his second term, “my Country has in its Wisdom contrived for me, the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his imagination conceived.”
As much as he bemoaned his fate, Adams perpetuated the pattern when he became the country’s second president in 1797. After briefly floating the idea of sending Vice-President Thomas Jefferson on a diplomatic mission to France, Adams imitated his predecessor and never seriously consulted Jefferson on any substantive political question. Unlike Adams, however, Jefferson preferred this lack of responsibility, or at least claimed to. Writing to prominent founder Benjamin Rush shortly after his election to the vice-presidency, Jefferson noted how grateful he was that he had “escaped” the presidency (he had lost by only three electoral votes) and how thankful he was for the alternative. Unlike the presidency, which he would later call a “splendid misery,” the vice-presidency was “a tranquil and unoffending” office that promised to afford him “philosophical evenings in the winter, and rural days in summer.” He would spend most of his vice-presidency at Monticello, his plantation in northern Virginia.
Since Jefferson’s day, a succession of unfortunate souls have made their peace, more or less, with the office’s ill-defined role. Woodrow Wilson’s vice-president, Indianan Thomas Marshall, remembered his time in the office fondly, noting in his memoirs that, while he had no interest working anymore, “I wouldn’t mind being Vice-President again.” Franklin Roosevelt’s first of three vice-presidents, Texan John Nance Garner, was less sanguine. Garner is famous for supposedly comparing the vice-presidency to “a bucket of warm spit,” a memorable line that may be apocryphal. (The evidence is entirely hearsay.) What we do know is what he told Collier’s Magazine in a 1948 interview: “There cannot be a great vice president. A great man may occupy the office, but there is no way for him to become a great vice president because the office in itself is almost wholly unimportant.” Garner later told another writer that being elected vice-president “was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
Garner might think differently had he taken the office a generation later. While the office remains Constitutionally trivial as long as the president keeps breathing, vice-presidents since the 1960s have often used it as a platform for their own presidential aspirations. Hubert Humphrey nearly claimed the presidency in 1968 while the sitting VP, as did Al Gore in 2000, and George H. W. Bush succeeded where they fell short. Both Mike Pence and Tim Kaine have surely thought about following in the elder Bush’s footsteps.
If you are interested in the possible place of religious conviction and/or religious issues in this year’s campaign, columnist Jonathan Martin calls attention to the primary role of the two vice-presidential nominees in this regard. See his NYT piece “With Tim Kaine and Mike Pence, Faith is Back in the Mix.”