The Vice-Presidential Debate: What’s at Stake?

via Blue Nation Review
via Blue Nation Review

Thursdays from now until the election, we will feature a piece by a UPK author that deals with an aspect of American politics. Today, Joel K. Goldstein, author of The White House Vice Presidency, discuses the importance and possible impact of Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate.

When Senator Tim Kaine and Governor Mike Pence square off in the vice-presidential debate on October 4, 2016 they will be engaging in an institution that is both unique and important in American government. The debate, which will take place at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., will be the tenth vice-presidential debate over the last 40 years.

The unique quality of a vice-presidential debate comes from several features. The major party presidential candidates typically debate two or three times, but Kaine and Pence will have only one vice-presidential debate, a pattern that has been followed in every presidential campaign beginning with 1976 except 1980. Accordingly, the stakes for the vice-presidential candidates are high; they have no chance to redeem a poor performance as, for instance, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama did in their second debates in 1984 and 2012 respectively.

The debate also presents a novel experience for the running mates. After all, presidential candidates have been debating during the primary season; the vice-presidential candidates have not had that opportunity except in the rare instances where they were unsuccessful presidential candidates that year (John Edwards, 2004; Joe Biden, 2008).

Moreover, the vice-presidential candidates are frequently relatively unknown. It is not unusual for 30% to 50% of the electorate to feel it knows too little about the vice-presidential candidates to have a firm opinion about them. Some surveys suggest that is the case this time. Neither Pence nor Kaine has run for president, served in high visibility roles, or attracted extensive attention (as Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin did).

9780700622023Finally, the focus of the vice-presidential debate is not so much on the two candidates on stage but on the two national candidates who are absent that night, the presidential candidates. The vice-presidential candidates therefore must be conversant regarding their record and that of their counterpart but also with the positions and biography of the two presidential candidates.

These features introduce some interesting dynamics into the debate. Because many voters will not have fixed opinions about them, vice-presidential candidates want to make a good impression in this signature campaign event to help shape the initial public perceptions of them. How they are regarded will affect their utility during the remainder of the campaign and the extent to which the public views them as a plausible president. Accordingly, they want to present themselves in an appealing way which may lead them to minimize the extent to which they attack the opposing ticket. On the other hand, their role is largely to support the party standard-bearer, by echoing his or her themes, defending his/her views, actions and qualifications and attacking those of the opposing presidential candidate. If the vice-presidential candidates spend a lot of time talking about themselves or their opponent, they are probably missing their main mark.

Yet even if the vice-presidential candidates are not entirely the focus of the vice-presidential debate, the vice-presidential debate is an important institution. It gives presidential candidates greater reason to choose a running mate who is able and accomplished and who can perform well under the bright lights of a national campaign. It focuses the spotlight on the second candidates, thereby making it easier for voters to consider them in casting their votes. Thus, the vice-presidential debate contributes to the quality of vice-presidential candidates (and vice presidents) and helps make their election more democratic.

And sometimes the vice-presidential debate makes a difference. In the first debate in 1976, Senator Walter F. Mondale helped, and Senator Bob Dole hurt, his cause. Mondale had themes and presented himself in an appealing way; Dole came across as sarcastic and unfocused. The highlight of the debate came when Dole blamed the Democratic party for all of the wars in the 20th century, prompting Mondale’s rebuke that “Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight, by implying, and stating, that World War II and the Korean War were Democratic wars.” Thereafter, Governor Jimmy Carter routinely cited the Mondale-Dole choice as a reason voters should support him, the Democrats used the vice-presidential choice in campaign ads, and Mondale contributed to Carter’s victory.

Dick Cheney was seen as having bested his rivals in the 2000 and 2004 debates; Senator Joe Lieberman’s unwillingness to attack the Republican ticket vigorously in 2000 was seen as a missed opportunity for the Democrats in a painfully close election.

In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden shifted the momentum in the Democrats’ favor after President Barack Obama had a substandard first debate. Biden ridiculed the positions of Governor Mitt Romney and Representative Paul Ryan and his performance energized the Democratic base.

The Biden-Palin debate outdrew the presidential debates that year, the only time the undercard debate has received such relative prominence. After Palin’s disastrous interview with Katie Couric, many watched the debate anticipating a monumental meltdown. She got through the debate without any such debacle but failed to persuade most Americans that she was qualified to be president. By contrast, Biden provided a masterful performance. Whereas the Pew Research Center found that only 42% thought Palin was qualified to be president (compared to 52% who did not), 77% saw Biden as qualified (as opposed to 16%).

The most famous moment in presidential debate history, of course, occurred in the 1988 vice-presidential debate when Senator Lloyd Bentsen delivered his “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy” putdown to Senator Dan Quayle after the Indiana senator had compared his congressional experience to that of JFK. Quayle had actually done pretty well in the debate, attacking Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis as a tax-and-spend liberal. But when the panel of reporters persisted in asking Quayle what he would do if he became president, Quayle misinterpreted the questions as challenging his qualifications and ignored his handlers’ admonition to avoid the JFK comparisons and spoiled an otherwise successful evening. The rest, as they say, is history.

Quayle went on to become vice president and contributed in that role to the George H.W. Bush administration. But he never escaped that dramatic moment and we’re reminded of it every four years about this time as it is replayed again and again.

That provides a cautionary tale for Mssrs. Pence and Kaine as they approach this major event in their national political careers. No matter how well they do in presenting themselves and in sounding campaign themes, celebrating their ticket-mate, and criticizing the opposing presidential candidate, one inopportune moment may prove defining. Or a uniformly impressive performance may enhance their stature and their ticket’s prospects.

By Joel K. Goldstein, Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law, Saint Louis University School of Law

The Wavering Qualifications of a Vice President

9780700622023In a recent piece on U.S. News & World Report, Robert Schlesinger argues that “The vice presidency, it’s been paraphrased, is not worth a bucket of warm spit. But over the last couple of decades two competing and frankly unsettling trends have occurred around that position.”

Schlesinger sites author Joel Goldstein’s book The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden” to illustrate the increased expectancy of Vice Presidential candidates. He writes that, even though the role and importance of the Vice President has evolved over the past 40 years, the qualifications of the candidates may not always stack up.

“But even as the vice presidency has found its proverbial groove, the quality of candidate for the office has not kept pace, especially since George H. W. Bush,” Schlesinger writes. “He was qualified to follow Mondale, of course, but his own hand-picked successor, Dan Quayle, was famously ‘no Jack Kennedy.’ Quayle’s four years as the number two were a nothingburger (though in fairness, Goldstein says he was a “valuable legislative and political adviser and operative”), for better or worse.”

 

UPK Author Goldstein Analyzes Trump’s Choices for Vice President

9780700622023In USA Today Joel K. Goldstein, author of The White House Vice Presidency, a new book about how the office and role of VP has grown in importance in recent decades, reviews the numerous possible strategies and candidates for a Trump running mate: insider/outsider?, male/female?, current politician/former politician?, governor/senator?

So You Want to Be Vice-President

9780700622023Joel K. Goldstein, author of “The White House Vice-Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden,” offers a list of thoughts for potential VPs to consider this election year via Larry J. Sabato’s Cyrstal Ball:

1. Do you want to be vice president?

The first question for a prospective running mate is whether they want to be vice president. The question may sound the same as the one that John Nance Garner, Richard M. Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey and others faced in their days, but the considerations are quite different now. The vice presidency has grown remarkably, moving into the executive branch beginning with Nixon’s VP terms and into the White House since Jimmy Carter and Walter F. Mondale reshaped the office 40 years ago. Whereas the vice presidency used to have formal stature but little role, more recently, the term “second office” has come closer to describing its real significance.

Still, as with many career choices, there are considerations going both ways. The advantages include the fact that since Carter and Mondale created the White House vice presidency, the vice president has become a senior, across-the-board presidential adviser and troubleshooter who counsels the president on the central issues facing the country and represents the United States on significant international missions. In other words, a presidential insider. The specific activities and influence of recent vice presidents have varied but the last six vice presidents (beginning with Mondale) have each performed the roles described above with a set of resources to support that activity. Vice presidents now provide highly significant public service.

Whereas a presidential race presents a daunting challenge, a vice presidential run is much more manageable. Presidential candidates have to spend years raising enormous amounts of money and winters in Iowa and New Hampshire, but a vice presidential race is essentially a 10 to 14 week sprint. Even so, a vice presidential candidate emerges from the campaign with high name recognition, a national platform, and friends around the country.

The vice presidency is also the best presidential springboard. While even most modern vice presidents don’t become president, being vice president enhances the chance that almost any individual will become a presidential nominee (e.g., Nixon, Humphrey, Mondale, and Al Gore) or president (Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and George H.W. Bush). Even many unsuccessful candidates see their stature rise and later assume significant roles (Bob Dole, Edmund Muskie, Lloyd Bentsen, and Paul Ryan). Many future presidential nominees had previously been considered but passed over for the second spot on the ticket (Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Mitt Romney).

There are disadvantages, too. A vice president loses independence in becoming part of the president’s team. The VP’s role is to help the president succeed, not advance an independent agenda. A vice president will be associated even with administration actions he privately opposed. The public may perceive the vice president as a follower, not leader, because that is the public role she plays.

Moreover, being vice president subjects the vice president and family to intense scrutiny. The Naval Observatory and other amenities are attractive, but the vice presidential spouse and children will lose some privacy. An in-law’s shady business dealing or a nephew’s DWI will become national news.

2. Are you suited to being No. 2?

The vice presidency is a much better job than it was even 40 years ago, but it’s still not for every able public official. Although vice presidents must be leaders who can tell the president discretely, but candidly, when he/she is wrong and who can relate to heads of state and congressional leaders as at least equals, they also have to be able to operate comfortably in a subordinate role. LBJ and Nelson Rockefeller were temperamentally unsuited to be vice president. Both were pretty miserable, and not particularly successful, in that office. Someone who cannot follow will probably not do well as vice president. Most recent vice presidents have adjusted pretty well to the role, uncomfortable or unnatural as it was for some of them. It cannot have been easy for Joe Biden, after six terms in the Senate and chairing two major committees, to defer to anyone, especially someone 19 years younger with 32 years less Senate seniority, yet he did. At the least, a vice president probably needs to respect the president and possess interpersonal skills and discipline to manage relationships with the president, the First Spouse, chief of staff, and the young and often overly-assertive campaign associates of the presidential candidate.

3. Do political considerations counsel against a race?

Sometimes political considerations deter a candidacy. Joining a presidential candidate who seems destined to lose has less appeal than running with a likely winner or one who at least has a chance. Similarly, a prospective candidate who is up for re-election is less likely to accept the second spot. Although some recent vice presidential candidates were able to run simultaneously for their current position (LBJ, Bentsen, Joe Lieberman, Biden, Ryan), some others were precluded from doing so by state law or because the competitive nature of their re-election campaign demanded their undivided attention. Further, prudent candidates consider their readiness for a national campaign, an undertaking that focuses attention on a candidate unlike any prior experience. Someone who is not ready for prime time is likely to damage their party’s campaign and their political future, costs that even a post-campaign gig as a talking head may not redeem. Think Sarah Palin. Whereas presidential candidates can hone their pitches long before Iowa and New Hampshire when few are watching closely, a vice presidential candidate has little time to prepare. He/she must step under the campaign’s bright lights immediately. Negative early impressions are difficult to erase especially for those new to the national stage. Finally, association with the presidential candidate may have advantages but also disadvantages. Given Donald Trump’s polarizing place even within the GOP, prospective Republican candidates, particularly those who are considering future runs for office, will have to consider the pluses and minuses of joining Trump’s ticket.

4. Compatibility

The identity of the presidential candidate matters. The experience, as vice presidential candidate and as vice president, will depend on the compatibility, politically and personally, between the presidential and vice presidential candidates. The two principals don’t have to be ideological carbon copies: Carter-Mondale, Ronald Reagan-Bush, Bush-Dan Quayle, among others, were not. Some variation probably helps, from a political and governing standpoint. But their world views must be generally harmonious so that differences occur at the margins, not routinely over matters of principle.

A prospective running mate should also ask whether he/she could envision a beneficial relationship with the presidential candidate over four or eight stressful years in the hierarchical situation the presidency-vice presidency imposes. At its best, it’s a partnership, but the partners do not share power or benefits equally. The vice president is dependent on the president.

Is the presidential candidate someone to be trusted, someone of decency, someone who will treat others as he/she would want to be treated? Does the presidential candidate appreciate the vice presidency as an asset and envision a substantive role like Mondale, Bush, Quayle, Gore, Cheney, and Biden had? Does the presidential candidate value the prospective running mate? Will the president make others in the campaign and administration accord the No. 2 respect? Being Johnson’s or Nixon’s vice president was no picnic. The last six presidents have treated their vice presidents well, but that had something to do with the personalities of the presidents and the relationships of the principals.

5. Does the running mate add value to the ticket?

A vice president is most likely to be successful if he/she adds something of value, not simply during the campaign but after the votes are counted. Of course, a vice president who contributes to the victory, as Mondale and Gore did, will start out with political capital. So will one, like Dick Cheney, who has a strong relationship with the presidential nominee based on prior work together. But such advantages are unlikely to sustain the relationship if the vice president cannot continually prove his/her value. Successful vice presidencies depend on the incumbent’s ability to add value through some combination of his/her knowledge, judgment, skills, relationships and personal characteristics (e.g. loyalty, hard-work). The vice president has to be able to contribute through advising and troubleshooting on some combination of diplomatic, legislative, inter-governmental, political, and constituency work that is significant for the administration.

6. Vettability

A prospective running mate who decides he/she would like to be vice president must also consider whether he/she can pass a rigorous vetting screen. The process of vice presidential vetting has come a long way since 1976 when the questionnaire given Carter’s shortlisters posed fewer than 20 questions. The process is now much, much more burdensome, much more time-consuming, much more costly, and much more intrusive. Joe Lieberman compared it to a “colonoscopy without anesthesia” after 2000 (although he was prepared to undergo another one eight years later to join McCain’s ticket). Between the vetting the presidential candidate imposes, media investigation, and opposition research, a vice presidential candidate has to assume that virtually everything in his/her life will become public. And the scrutiny will extend to their spouse and children who also may be questioned about sexual affairs, sexual orientation, drug use, and other very personal matters. A prospective vice presidential candidate must be prepared to allow his/her personal and family secrets to become fodder for opposing Super PACs.

7. Duty

The foregoing assumes that a prospective running mate would simply consider self-interest in making the decision. Yet some make themselves available because they feel obligated, to country and/or party, to do so. There is reason to believe, for instance, that a sense of duty led John Danforth in 2000 and Biden in 2008 to allow themselves to be considered.

In the 19th century, Daniel Webster declined the second spot because he did “not want to be buried until I die.” In modern times, many of our ablest political leaders have been willing to accept the second spot on a ticket. And vice presidents since Mondale (other than Bush, who later served as president) performed their most consequential public service in the second office. Still, some eminent figures, such as Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley, and Colin Powell, have recently declined to be considered. Again, a Trump nomination could create a unique dynamic: Given the intense opposition from many party regulars to his nomination, it is conceivable that at least some prospective running mates may conclude that duty to the party counsels avoiding the second spot on his ticket (whereas others might reach a different conclusion).

In any event, dozens of public figures are now, or will soon be, deciding whether the White House vice presidency appeals to them. Those decisions will be one important variable in shaping the pools from which the major party running mates are chosen.

-Written by Joel K. Goldstein, author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden