I was reflecting on the wisdom I acquired in one of my early college classes, “Introduction to American Government” and subsequent historical readings. First, the conventional wisdom of American political life was that Vice-Presidents are rarely of any administrative or political consequence. Generally, sitting Vice-Presidents represent the United States at funerals of foreign dignitaries. They throw out the first pitch at baseball games at season openers. They may be selected to provide “balance” on a presidential ticket. If the Presidential candidate is from the North, the vice-presidential candidate is from the South, or one of the team is from the East and the other from the Midwest or West Coast.
In office, the traditional wisdom suggests, sitting Vice-Presidents have little influence or even knowledge of current policies, programs, and pending crises. The classic example of this is signified by Vice President Harry Truman’s ascendency to the Presidency upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April, 1945. The new President was informed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, in April, 1945, that the military was about to test a new weapon, the atomic bomb, which could bring an end to the war in Asia. This was news to the sitting Vice-President! And Stimson proposed a strategy for using the bomb, if the test was successful, to threaten the Soviet Union to bow to U.S. post-war demands.
Truman, like most twentieth century Vice-Presidents was not part of the public policy inner-circle before or after presidential elections. He was only on the ticket in 1944 to assuage Southern Democrats because the incumbent Vice-President, Henry Wallace, was seen as a dangerous radical who had publicly opposed racial segregation.
Southern Democrats and other racists and conservatives in the Democratic Party organized to oust Vice-President Wallace to make sure that no dangerous radical could be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. They mobilized around a traditional machine politician from a border state with no record of opposing racism, Harry Truman. And, as suggested above, while FDR caved to rightwing pressures in the party, the new Vice-President was not made part of the policy team.
Subsequent to the Truman nomination, Vice Presidents included Alben Barkley, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush, Dan Quayle, and Al Gore. For the most part they were of little political influence at best or embarrassments at worst.
The role of Vice-President changed markedly with the election of the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney ticket. Bush came from a wealthy political family and had served with less than distinction as governor of Texas. The election was close and the outcome in November, 2000 was largely determined by a Republican-led Supreme Court.
The real influence over the next eight years was the Vice President, Dick Cheney. Former Congressman from Wyoming, Cheney had served every administration since Richard Nixon. He was the Secretary of Defense when George Herbert Walker Bush launched Gulf War One. General Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of forces during that war and his superior General Colin Powell, Chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, originally opposed military action in the Gulf. But Secretary of Defense Cheney made it clear that if these military men continued their resistance to war on Iraq he, Cheney, would find a way to get the job done.
Later in the decade, Cheney would participate in the formation of PNAC, Project for the New American Century. This organization of inside the beltway hawks, descendants of the anti-Communist Committee on the Present Danger, and other advocates for high military spending and war rather than diplomacy as the primary tool of empire, used every opportunity during the decade to pressure President Clinton and Congress in the new post-Cold War era to remake the world, including attacking Iraq.
In the 2000 election the PNAC point man, who also served time as CEO of a major defense contractor, Haliburton, became the number two man in the White House.
Serving a new president who during a foreign policy debate with candidate Gore suggested that the United States should not engage in overseas adventures, Cheney went to work to transform United States foreign policy. The so-called “neo-conservative” agenda promoted war over diplomacy, lied about threats to U.S. security, used the 9/11 tragedy to launch two wars that lasted a decade, and created fear about a global terrorist threat. In short, the new Vice-Presidential role was one of power, influence, and control over the presidency not seen since Theodore Roosevelt served as William McKinley’s second in command.
Cheney was the idea man with enormous clout derived from his associations with the military/industrial complex. As a smart, manipulative politician he transformed the role and influence of the vice president, particularly on foreign policy.
Saturday, August 11, 2012, Republican candidate Mitt Romney announced that his running mate for the fall election would be Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, also smart and skilled in the ways of Washington politics. He has articulated a vision of opposition to “big” government for the vast majority of the population. But at the same time his proposed budget remains committed to “big” government for the supper rich. These include the military, insurance companies, and bankers. He will serve as the idea man for the weak Romney candidacy and if elected will do for the domestic economy what Dick Cheney did for United States foreign policy.
Of course, the losers will be working people, women, people of color, the elderly, and the environment. One does not have to be happy with the Obama presidency to see that this fall real choices exist for the future of the 99 percent.