In this extraordinary presidential campaign, where every rule in the book has been torn up, they are the forgotten men: running mates in a year when the names of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton drown out all else.
Vice presidents count for much more than they used to. No longer do they toil unnoticed in the vineyard or, worse, kick their heels doing nothing. No longer does the old saying about the job being worth less than a bucket of warm spit (in the politer version of the expression) apply.
The first truly consequential vice president of modern times was Walter Mondale, under Jimmy Carter. During George W Bush’s presidency, Dick Cheney rose to become the most consequential of them all, wielding unprecedented influence to the point of sometimes seeming to run a parallel administration.
One reason for the growing importance of the post is simply that there’s more to do. The modern presidency is the most crushing job on earth; a vice president can share at least some of the burden, though how much depends on the personal relationship between the two. If Cheney’s star waned in Bush’s second term, Joe Biden has become a steadily more central figure under Barack Obama, in large measure simply because the two men have grown closer.
Where Kaine might fit on this spectrum is clear: it’s not difficult to imagine him developing a relationship with Clinton akin to that between Obama and Biden. But Pence? Sometimes during the campaign Trump has sounded as if he didn’t have a running mate at all. It’s hard to see how that will change should the egocentric billionaire take up residence at Pennsylvania Avenue.
However a vice president’s most vital role resides in that heartbeat of distance that separates him from the presidency itself. Three times in the past 75 years, a sitting vice president has been called upon in extremis, when the supreme office has suddenly become vacant through death or resignation: Harry Truman in 1945, Lyndon B Johnson in 1963, and Gerald Ford in 1974. So out of the loop, incidentally, was Truman that Roosevelt hadn’t even informed him of the Manhattan Project developing a nuclear weapon when FDR died in April 1945.
Who would dare rule out another dramatic succession, given the ever more polarised state of US politics, where scandals real and imagined are permanently in the air and threats of impeachment are bandied around daily – not to mention the intensely hostile feelings that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump arouse, in a nation awash with guns?
Americans are aware of all this. George H W Bush was not helped (to put it mildly) by his choice of Dan Quayle as vice president. And nothing did more to destroy John McCain’s reputation for sound judgement than that the 2008 Republican nominee, a man of 72 with a less than perfect health record, should choose Sarah Palin as his running mate and thus potential successor.
Vice presidents are a factor for another reason too. The job guarantees national name recognition and thus an automatic place in any early list of White House hopefuls the next time around. Of the last 12 vice presidents, seven have either become president or run for president.
On all these scores, both Kaine and Pence pass muster. They are no Sarah Palins. Unlike their bosses, they are popular. Indeed, in the darkest hours of Trump’s campaign this autumn, some wished (and a few may even plotted) for him to be forced out and Pence take over.
Pence is a family values conservative through and through, but was well liked on all sides during his 12 years as an Indiana Congressman in Washington. Ditto Kaine, a moderate Democrat for whom Republicans would struggle to find an unkind word during his stints as mayor of Richmond, Virginia’s capital city, governor of the state and then as one of its two US senators.
Both are amply qualified to take over; indeed, it’s easy to imagine either man as president (in Pence’s case a good deal more easy than his boss).
Both too would probably be better equipped than their polarising bosses to restore the civility and bipartisanship that American politics so desperately needs. Sadly though, that’s another story.
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