Goldstein on Mondale: “Truly consequential”

The death of Walter F. Mondale on April 19, 2021, brought an outpouring of tributes recognizing that the United States had lost an exceptional public servant and exemplary person. I shared that sentiment but for me, he was also the hero of my book, The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden (2016). I never would have written that book had Mondale not become vice president and much of it focused on his work in the historic undertaking to make the vice presidency truly consequential, work often performed in tandem with his partner in the undertaking, Jimmy Carter. Four chapters were devoted entirely to their work as were parts of six of the remaining 12 chapters.

My earlier book on the vice presidency, The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution (1982), written primarily during the late 1970s, had focused on the office during the quarter-century between the vice presidencies of Richard M. Nixon (1953-61) and Mondale (1977-81). It had traced the office’s dramatic move into the executive branch during Nixon’s vice presidency and the consolidation of that development to sweeping changes in American life and government that began with the New Deal and World War II. The book noted Mondale’s greatly enhanced role as a presidential adviser and recommended the Mondale model vice presidency but was written long before internal documents and other important information about Mondale’s term became available or before it became clear whether the new arrangements would continue after Carter and Mondale left office.

Yet by the early 21st century, if not before, it became clear that the vice presidencies that followed Mondale’s—those of George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden—resembled Mondale’s tenure much more than those of Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert H. Humphrey, Spiro T. Agnew, Gerald Ford or Nelson A. Rockefeller. Clearly, Mondale’s vice presidency had initiated an entirely new period for the office rather than being part of the Nixon era executive branch vice presidency.  Mondale’s recent predecessors had migrated to the executive branch but they spent little time in the West Wing. Yet that’s where Mondale and his successors operated.  Vice presidents from Nixon to Rockefeller often performed peripheral matters and rarely saw the president but Mondale and later vice presidents were in the president’s inner circle. They handled assignments that mattered and spent more hours with the president in a day than their predecessors had in a month. And the changes weren’t limited to time in office but extended to the selection and campaign roles. Beginning with Mondale, vice presidents were vetted extensively before selection, they participated in vice-presidential debates, and pre-convention rollouts soon became the norm, an innovation Mondale began in 1984 when he announced his historic selection of Representative Geraldine Ferraro before the convention.

The White House Vice Presidency began as an effort to describe the office that Mondale and his successors held and to understand how it had become a fixture in the inner sanctum of the West Wing. That investigation kept returning me to Mondale. Carter and Mondale had created the Mondale model vice presidency and the supporting practices and institutions which other administrations had then adopted.

Yet that statement, that Carter and Mondale created the new vice presidency, is misleading since its very simplicity diminishes the difficulty and magnitude of their accomplishment. It was a very big deal!  The unprecedented arrangement required a complicated sequence of steps and created a new model that endured long after they left office. Carter and Mondale needed to reach a mutual commitment that an engaged and empowered vice presidency was in their interests and made sense, to understand the office, its failures and frustrations to create a new vision, to identify and provide the resources to give the new vision a chance to function and to implement it faithfully amidst the stresses of governing to confirm that what seemed good in theory could work in practice. And even if they successfully accomplished each step, their creation would extend beyond their terms in office only if they transmitted the model to their successors and demonstrated its merit and feasibility.

My research led me to appreciate the complexity of their achievement, the necessary steps that were hidden from public view. Mondale had undertaken an intensive study of the vice presidency to understand its vulnerabilities and recurring failures and to identify ways in which it could enhance American government. That study led him to think about the office in a novel way—not principally as a president in waiting but as a senior, elected official committed to helping the president succeed now.  The new perspective on the office accompanied a new vision of the vice-presidential role. Rather than accumulating vice-presidential portfolios, Mondale concluded that the vice president should function as a senior, across-the-board presidential adviser and troubleshooter for high-level assignments. Long before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Aaron Burr memorably sung of the allure of being in “The Room Where it Happens,” Mondale appreciated lessons implicit in that wonderful song as the secret to a consequential vice-presidency. Mondale recognized that being in the room with Carter would allow him to offer Carter uniquely useful advice—the candid counsel of a fellow elected public servant with a similar perspective and shared political destiny—and would enhance his ability to undertake presidential assignments. Mondale understood that the new vice-presidential vision of a general adviser and troubleshooter wouldn’t just happen. It required new vice-presidential resources—access to the president and the information he got and presidential support. Carter, anxious to have Mondale’s help, gave Mondale every resource he requested and demonstrated his commitment to the project by adding others. Mondale implemented the new vision for four years, giving Carter candid advice and handling high-level assignments skillfully. And then, after Carter and Mondale lost their re-election campaign to Ronald Reagan and Bush, Mondale and his aides schooled Bush and his associates on how to be a successful vice president even though Mondale knew that he would be embarking on a presidential campaign in 1984 which would likely match him against Reagan and/or Bush.

The innovations that Carter and Mondale put in place regarding the White House vice presidency, and the selection, rollout, and campaign roles of vice-presidential candidates have been institutionalized since then. To be sure, those features have been tweaked and updated and different vice presidents have done things a bit differently. But the vision, resources, and institutions Carter and Mondale put in place have survived on a bipartisan basis during the succeeding presidential administrations. They created the office Vice President Kamala Harris now holds.

The White House Vice Presidency thus became not simply a book about the vice presidency as it now exists. It also became a study of an important type of constitutional change, a consideration of how enduring institutional change can occur through the repetition of practices until they become established norms.

What triggered this constitutional change was political leadership, principally the commitment, imagination, planning, and performance of Carter and Mondale in finding a way to recreate America’s most problematic governmental institution into a position of lasting consequence. They were the leaders who made the change happen. Writing the book left me with an appreciation of Mondale’s deep understanding of American constitutional government and political behavior, his creativity in reformulating the vice presidency into a consequential and productive institution of government, and his skill and character in discharging his public trust. I hope the book conveys that picture of the leadership and character of this remarkable public servant and person.

Joel K. Goldstein is the the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law Emeritus, Saint Louis University School of Law. He is the author of numerous works on the vice presidency, presidential succession, and constitutional law.

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