What’s the role of the vice president?
Vail, CO, Colorado
The election is neatly in the rearview. Whew! It has been a wearying campaign, dragging on (and dragging us along with it) for the past year and a half.
Whatever your political persuasion, though, democracy, with all its warts and flaws, was served. We have a president-elect and a vice president-elect. Hopefully, the new president will act with strength, foresight and wisdom and set this nation back on course, restore the sheen to, as the early pilgrim John Winthrop wrote, and Ronald Reagan famously borrowed, this “shining city on the hill.”
While the battle scars are fresh, it may seem the wrangling, name-calling, innuendo, incrimination and outright silliness was more raw and vile than in past elections. Bare-knuckled politicking has been part of our political heritage since at least the Adams-Jefferson contest of 1796. No one ever said democracy was pretty. As Winston Churchill once observed, democracy is the worst form of government … except for all the others that have been tried.
There is no doubt that through the lens of historical perspective, this election will stand as a hallmark and realization of American ideals. A woman was very nearly the first to capture her party’s nomination; a Hispanic was a credible and consequential candidate; the Republicans, for the first time, ran a woman as their vice presidential candidate; and a black man led his party to the presidency. Think about it for a moment: We have been living at the apex of a historical tipping point.
While history has been amply served in the past few months, much of the focus has been on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who, like her or not, brought the question to the forefront ” “What does a vice president do?”
John Adams, the first vice president, once famously remarked, “My country has, in its wisdom, contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” John Nance Gardner, Franklin Roosevelt’s number two, was more blunt: “The vice presidency,” he said, “wasn’t worth a warm bucket of spit.”
In fact, the vice president’s constitutional mandate is quite limited. Most important, he or she stands first in the line of succession should a president die in office or become incapacitated, a role Lyndon Johnson once likened to a “perpetual death watch.”
Said Johnson, “Every time I came into John Kennedy’s presence, I felt like a raven hovering over his shoulder.”
The second vice presidential function is to serve as president of the Senate, the role which permits his or her vote only in the unusual circumstance where the Senate is deadlocked in a tie. He or she may be assigned additional duties by the president but in so acting, is no more than a agent of the President. That’s about it.
Notwithstanding Gov. Palin’s claim that the Vice President is “in charge of the U.S. Senate so if they want to they can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes,” it just ain’t so.
While it is true that the five most recent vice presidents, “Mondale, Bush, Quayle and, especially, Gore and Cheney ” have played fairly significant roles in both domestic and foreign affairs, they have done so only at the pleasure of the president and not under the imprimatur of the Constitution.
There is little doubt that the office of vice president was an afterthought at the Constitutional Convention. The delegates spent days debating the power of the presidency, the balance of power between the presidency and the other branches of government, and how a president would be elected. Least of their concerns was the manner of succession.
The delegates debated at length the first of these concerns but, with little fanfare or discussion, added the office of the vice presidency to address the problem of succession which was very nearly left to the senate to resolve.
An afterthought? No doubt. A raven on the shoulder of the president? Perhaps. The holder of a warm bucket of spit? Maybe not quite. But presidents have come to rely more and more upon their vice presidents for counsel, as surrogates, and as tools to be wielded. Let us all hope that Senator Biden is equal to the task and is as large as he may one day need to be.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He is a member of the Colorado State Bar Association Legal Ethics Committee and is a former adjunct professor of law. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.