by Joel K. Goldstein, Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law, Saint Louis University School of Law
Discussions of constitutional theory tend to focus on the Constitution’s justiciable clauses. Yet much constitutional interpretation and change occurs in clauses the courts never consider. No American constitutional institution has experienced the positive trajectory of the vice presidency during the last 40 years. Building on developments especially during the prior quarter century, the vice presidency has gone from a disparaged legislative position and then a peripheral executive office to an integral part of the president’s inner circle. The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden describes this remarkable development, seeks to account for it, and explores what can be learned from it about the vice presidency, constitutional change and political leadership.
The vice presidency had grown during the quarter century beginning with the vice presidency of Richard M. Nixon (1953-1961). Propelled by changes in American government that the New Deal, World War II and the Cold War initiated, the office moved into the executive branch during the six vice presidencies of Nixon through Nelson A. Rockefeller (1974-1977) and assumed a standard set of roles. The vice presidency became a coveted presidential springboard and a better source of presidential successors. Despite this progress, the office remained limited. Much of what vice presidents did was, in historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s phrase, “make-work;” vice presidents were not part of the president’s inner circle and the office was pretty limited and vice presidents were pretty frustrated.
The presidency of Jimmy Carter brought the creation of the White House Vice Presidency. By clinching the nomination early, Carter had time to systematically consider his vice-presidential options. Carter was predisposed to elevate the second office but was not immediately sure how to do so. Carter’s running mate, Walter F. Mondale, was extremely able and politically and personally compatible with Carter. In addition to contributing to Carter’s narrow election win, Mondale ultimately provided a new vision of the vice president as a general, senior presidential adviser and troubleshooter. Carter gave Mondale the resources he needed to succeed in that position and worked with Mondale to implement the new office.