April 3, 2016

The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden

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.

The model Carter and Mondale created and the accompanying resources became institutionalized as subsequent administrations adopted them. The White House Vice Presidency proved flexible enough to accommodate the various styles, needs and strengths of each new pair. Yet Mondale and his five successors each served as an important presidential adviser and troubleshooter who handled an assortment of assignments that needed high-level attention.

The White House Vice Presidency was supported by and associated with changes that occurred during the same period in the selection, campaigns, pre-inauguration activities and successor roles of vice-presidential candidates, vice-presidents-elect and vice presidents. The selection followed some basic patterns to vet and consider candidates. Presidential candidates accelerated the selection to precede the convention to allow for a vice-presidential roll out. Vice-presidential acceptance speeches were generally given greater attention. Vice-presidential debates became a standard campaign event. Following the election, vice presidents participated in the presidential transition in significant roles. Succession practices became standardized.

These changes were not, of course, mandated by constitutional amendment or judicial decision or by statutory command. Rather, they developed as practices proved successful and were repeated or proved defective and were improved. The common law development of these institutions made the White House Vice Presidency an additional asset of the presidency. It provided a senior political leader who could advise the president based on a perspective that approximated his own. And it furnished a senior leader who could discharge significant assignments that needed high-level attention, often by an official not identified with a particular department and possessing political skills.

The White House Vice Presidency describes the development and implementation of this new vision of the vice presidency and the associated institutions. It demonstrates the role of practice and political leadership in reshaping constitutional institutions. And it offers the hope that if our most disparaged constitutional office can experience such an impressive trajectory, perhaps we can yet reverse the decline of some other governmental institutions that have been losing the public’s confidence.