Commentary: Why Biden’s choice for veep really does matter

Since the Carter administration, the vice presidency has been elevated in its influence and importance.

By Steven M. Gillon / Special to The Washington Post

The political world has turned its attention to Joe Biden’s vice presidential selection, which the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee promised to announce next week.

That choice will have a significant impact on a potential Biden presidency, thanks to one of his former Senate colleagues: Walter F. Mondale. As President Jimmy Carter’s second-in-command, Mondale blazed a new path for the vice presidency. Although Carter failed to win reelection for a second term, the changes these two men made to the vice presidency have endured.

Mondale assumed the vice presidency at a critical point in its history. The position’s vague duties and the mediocre talent it had attracted produced questions about its usefulness. “There is no escape,” the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1974, “from the conclusion that the vice presidency is not only meaningless but a hopeless office.”

Schlesinger was not alone in that assessment. The Founders had created the office as an afterthought. For most of its history the vice presidency had been the object of public ridicule. John Adams, the nation’s first vice president, described his position as “wholly insignificant.” And Daniel Webster turned down the nomination for the office in 1848. “I do not propose,” he said, “to be buried until I am dead.” As recently as 1960, John Nance Garner, who served two terms as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president, advised fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson: “The vice presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit.”

Much of the problem stemmed from the vice president’s ill-defined responsibilities. The vice president’s sole constitutional duty, other than to succeed the president, was to preside over the Senate; even then only casting votes in the event of a tie.

Not until John F. Kennedy became president in 1960 was a vice president even given space in the Executive Office Building. And yet, while as Senate majority leader in the 1950s, Johnson exercised considerable clout, he found himself isolated as vice president and his advice often ignored. Nonetheless, when Johnson assumed the presidency, he quickly dismissed the advice of his own vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who urged Johnson to withdraw from Vietnam in February 1965. The president responded by labeling Humphrey “disloyal,” and cutting him out of future discussions of the administration’s Vietnam strategy.

Under Richard Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew’s fierce partisanship attracted considerable attention and helped him attract conservative southerners to Republicans’ electoral coalition. But when it came to governing, Agnew did little to add to the position’s stature or power.

This history weighed on Mondale’s mind when, in December 1976, he met with the president-elect to discuss their plans for the vice-presidency. Mondale presented Carter with a detailed memorandum outlining the role he wanted to play in the new administration.

Careful research, combined with conversations with Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller, who had been Gerald Ford’s vice president, convinced Mondale that the vice president’s role had been “characterized by ambiguity, disappointment and even antagonism.” Realizing that “my personal and political success is totally tied to yours,” Mondale informed Carter that he hoped to break the cycle of frustration that had characterized the office.

Mondale contended that the vice president’s primary role should be as general adviser to the president. Too often, he argued, presidents had failed because they had ignored independent voices. He was very aware of the frustrations that Humphrey, his political mentor, had endured during the Johnson years. Yet in Mondale’s view, the role of the vice president was to do exactly what Humphrey had struggled to do; offer candid, blunt independent analysis.

To fulfill this function, the vice president needed access to the same information as the president, especially the daily briefings from the CIA and other intelligence agencies; a close relationship with other members of the executive branch; participation in meetings of key groups; an experienced staff member on both the National Security Council and the Domestic Policy Council; and close and frequent access to the president.

Carter agreed to all of Mondale’s requests. In addition, the president-elect offered a standing invitation for him to attend all of the president’s political meetings, and he scheduled a regular Monday lunch where they could discuss in private important business. “What was unique about their relationship was that it was across the board,” recalled domestic policy adviser Stuart Eisenstat. “Carter saw Mondale as his most senior adviser. No one else had that breadth of relationship with the president.”

After agreeing to their groundbreaking institutional relationship, they turned to the more mundane question of where Mondale’s office would be located. One of Mondale’s favorite expressions was, “where you sit is where you stand,” so he lobbied for an office in the West Wing rather than the Executive Office Building; which he dubbed “Baltimore,” signifying how far it was from the seat of power. For Mondale, the EOB simply symbolized the physical isolation of the vice president.

Mondale also lobbied to get loyal staff members placed in sensitive positions in the executive branch. By having people loyal to him in critical positions, Mondale hoped to prevent the president’s staff from undermining his influence.

Mondale considered the expansion of the power of the vice presidency to be perhaps his greatest contribution during his four years in office. It was, however, a double-edged sword.

Carter chose Mondale because he represented a different wing of the Democratic Party. While Carter appealed to moderate and independent voters, Mondale had close ties with the liberal interest groups that had been the backbone of the party since the days of Franklin Roosevelt. When vice presidents had little power, such ideological differences had little impact; like those between the liberal Roosevelt and the conservative Garner. But with institutional power came the potential for conflict.

In 1979, the twin evils of rising unemployment and spiraling inflation threatened to tear the White House apart. Carter planned to cut spending to get inflation under control. Mondale believed that the administration should tackle unemployment by increasing spending. These confounding issues exposed the deep political differences between the two men. At one point Mondale was so frustrated with Carter’s approach that he openly discussed resigning.

Despite this disagreement, so influential was Mondale that some Carter aides unfairly blamed him for preventing the administration from articulating a clear message. Carter’s attorney general Griffin Bell said that Mondale’s influence resulted in shaping “the unclear, all-things-to-all-people voice that the public heard so often from the administration.” The sense that Mondale had too much power, however, is belied by Carter’s struggles to understand how Washington worked or master the levers of presidential power; despite Mondale’s knowledge and involvement.

Despite these problems, every subsequent vice president has adopted the Mondale model. Mondale invested the office with new power and responsibility, and he defined the working relationship between the president and vice president. No future vice president wanted to go back to the old approach.

But perhaps owing to the struggles of Carter, the model has also slowly been fine-tuned: Today presidential candidates choose running mates who enhance their standing electorally and who share a similar political ideology. That was certainly the case for Bill Clinton, who ignored conventional wisdom about regional balance by selecting another son of the New South, Al Gore, as well as for Barack Obama and Joe Biden, who shared a faith in activist government and racial reconciliation.

But sometimes electoral appeals can backfire. George W. Bush chose Dick Cheney to appeal to more conservative voters who were distrustful of his message of “compassionate conservatism,” but questions about fighting terrorism at home and abroad eventually drove a wedge between the two men.

The person who accepts Biden’s offer probably will insist on having the same institutional arrangement pioneered by Mondale. Biden has committed to choosing a woman, but will he pick someone who shares his views on major issues? If he were to win election, the answer to that question may well determine the success or failure of his presidency.

Steven M. Gillon is a senior faculty fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia and teaches history at the University of Oklahoma. He is author of, “America’s Reluctant Prince: The Life of John F. Kennedy, Jr.” He is writing a history of the Clinton administration.

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