A further partial defense of Sarah Palin

“What exactly is it the vice president does every day?”  When Sarah Palin was asked that question as her name was being broached on a long list of McCain running mate picks, that was her response.  And it is a pretty good question.  Basically the answer is that he (she) breaks ties in the Senate, and waits for the president to die.  Any additional responsibility is granted by the president.

Later, as vice presidential candidate, Palin answered the question for a third grader with “[T]hey’re in charge of the U.S. Senate so if they want to they can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes that will make life better for Brandon and his family and his classroom.”  Strictly speaking, no, they’re not in “charge of the US Senate”.  Senate relations have been a role granted to the vice president since at least Alben Barkley, and this is one of the roles Joseph Biden negotiated Barack Obama to get — indeed, I do believe Biden when asked on his role as vice-president listed the term “president of the Senate” with enough qualifications to suggest it’s not a Constitutional Perogative.  But then again there is that famous incident between Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator Patrick Leahy wherein the vice president told Leahy to “Go fuck yourself” — and Cheney is considered the most powerful vice president in history, a distinction not gained from being in charge of the US Senate” — although Cheney once attempted a legalistic definition to get him into the Legislative branch as a means of getting him out of legal issues tied specifically with the Executive branch — so even with Cheney the issue becomes complicated.  It is worth noting that Lyndon Johnson tried his best to wrest back his role as leading the Senate, but was told by the new Senate Majority Leader told him to go bug off, and so Johnson sulked back and until Kennedy’s assassination.

Through most of American history, the vice president did jack squat.  John Adams referred to it as the “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”  His successor, Thomas Jefferson, lead the opposition to John Adams’s administration from the office, which was something that suggested the need for Constitutional changes in electing a vice president.  And Martin Van Buren may have been the only true partner in government in the nineteenth century.

I suppose the vice presidency became relevant, as an office in and of itself, with John Garner — an ironic statement to make since he is always quoted as saying “the office is not worth a bucket of warm spit”, or if censors are not involved, “warm shit”.  Nonetheless, he started making some behind the scenes moves in the emerging Conservative Democratic split as Roosevelt’s administration progressed, and was thus axed for Henry Wallace.  Henry Wallace was the first of several men who “gave the vice-presidency new meaning” — which is that Roosevelt gave him some things to do.  But he rid himself of Wallace, passive – aggressively sending him off on a mission to Siberia while putting in place the mechinism which brought Harry Truman to the vice presidency.  The short tenure of the Truman vice-presidency seems to revert to old form, as evidenced by Truman never being told about the atomic bomb.

Richard Nixon, in addition to being serving as a necessary partisan attack dog for an Eisenhower who wished to remain a non-partisan figure, and being given such jobs as debating Kruschev in a kitchen to extoll the virtues of American Democracy, ended up taking a good bite of a role as Eisenhower suffered health problems and he stepped in to replace him at cabinet meetings.  I have no clear sketch on Hubert Humphrey, except to mention Johnson’s passive — aggressive treatment in helping and not helping him in his presidential election.  Spiro Agnew served in the perpetual campaign role of rallying Nixon’s newly forming Republican base by tossing out insults and invective — or perhaps his role was to keep the Democrats from impeaching Nixon lest they unleash a President Agnew.

Mondale was another supposed “transformative vice president”, but so was George HW Bush, Al Gore, and Dick Cheney.  We keep having “transformative vice presidents” who aren’t — Mondale served the old Alben Barkley role as a go-between between the Congress and the President.  Given the rocky relation Carter had with Congress, this either proves he was ineffective in that role, or desperately necessary — and I’m not sure which.

The exception to this rule of new vice-presidential perogatives — such high water marks as Al Gore stream-lining the amount of government paper-work — was Dan Quayle, whose role in the White House amounted to Comic Relief.

None of this is to detract from the vice-president’s central job — to quote Colin Powell, “she is not ready to be president, and that is the job of the vice-president”.  But it does lead to no clear cut answer to the question “What is it the vice president does every day?” — an answer which has to be fleshed out between the vice president and the president, and an answer which Biden has negotiated with Obama to get an answer.  Perhaps Palin worked out that her job has a heavy Senate lobbying component, but if that were the job duties granted to her, the job would best be served by someone with heavy Legislative experience as opposed to the mighty Executive Experience (the only one of the four with it!) which supposedly serves as Palin’s chief asset.

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