The changing role of the Vice President

(Photo: Town and Country Magazine)

By Zara Berry – Contributor

The role of the United States Vice President has undergone significant evolution throughout history. The position initially began as a consolation prize for the runner-up in the Presidential election, in more modern times the role of the Vice President has been used to bring more balance to a presidential ticket. A prime example of this is the selection of Lyndon Johnson in 1960 as the ‘running mate’ of John F Kennedy. The experienced southern Senator was selected to balance out Kennedy’s relative inexperience in Washington politics, his youth and his ‘New England bias’. This trend of a supporting vice-president continued throughout the latter parts of the 20th century, and well into the 21st century. Joe Biden himself is a good example of this, being picked in 2008 as an old hand who knew the ways of Washington to add experience to the youthful hope of Obama. Similarly, his roots within the ‘rust belt’ state of Pennsylvania was thought to be a draw for the working-class voters in that area.  Even Trump, the ultimate self-proclaimed anti-establishment candidate, followed this establishment trend with his selection of Mike Pence designed to attract social conservatives and more moderate Republicans who might be attracted to Pence’s experience in Washington, having served 6 terms in the House of Representatives and 1 term as Governor of Indiana.

However, the role of Vice President has evolved since then. The role is still used to tick demographic boxes, but particularly in this election cycle something has changed. The health of both septuagenarian candidates has come under the spotlight. If either Trump or Biden wins the election, the victor either cannot or probably will not run in 2024. This adds a new focus on the role of the Vice President as likely heir of the party. If Trump wins, he cannot run again, and the question is whether Pence will step in and galvanise the Trump base for a run in 2024. If Biden wins, Harris is likely to have a large role in governance and be primed for another Presidential run in 2024, as Biden would be 82 years old in 2024 and unlikely to run again due to his age.

These circumstances place more weight on the Vice-Presidential candidates, as shown by the increased fervour around their single debate this year. But their debate did not live up to the hype and was a relatively normal affair, with both candidates supporting the top of their ticket and attempting to attack the opposing ticket. However, this relative normalcy could heighten their role as both Harris and Pence were praised for their general civility in comparison to the fiasco that was the Presidential debate the week before. The impression of both VP candidates as reliable ‘backups’ for the main candidates could help make up voters’ minds if they are worried about the impression they got from the Presidential debate.

Pence has mostly stayed out of the media spotlight for the duration of Trump’s first term and has instead focused on being an able deputy to Trump, supporting his policies and backing him up against his critics. He has mostly allowed his flamboyant boss to grab the headlines, although he has courted controversy himself, for example when he became the first sitting Vice President to attend the March for Life rally in Washington D.C. However, this shouldn’t be a surprising move given Pence’s status as a devout ‘evangelical’ Christian. He has also shown himself to be a valuable administrative tool, having a voice in executive appointments and heading the White House coronavirus task force, an appointment that has thrust him more into the spotlight than usual.

Where the true future change might lie is if the Biden-Harris ticket wins and Harris becomes Vice President. Whilst it is unremarkable for the Vice President to have campaigned against the President in their party primaries, the fact that Biden is very unlikely to run again makes a second Harris campaign a far more immediate prospect, and casts more retrospective analysis on her first campaign. The fact that she is very likely to run in 2024 means that if she makes it into office she will probably push for a very visible role in government and in important legislation. Biden may grant this anyway given his own role in the Obama administration as a key policy consultant and a sort of congressional liaison. She would most likely be placed in key roles on visible issues such as climate change or healthcare in order to raise her profile with the public and build her support among the wider Democratic party base, for a prospective run in 2024. Unless something disastrous happened or another candidate emerged, if she was the sitting Vice President Harris would be very likely to wield the backing of the Democratic establishment in 2024, which would be a significant plus towards a 2024 run. A clear grooming by the party of Harris as a 2024 candidate would be a change as it would be a very public announcement of her role as the likely party heir.

It remains to be seen whether the questions of the party heir will affect the election. It is unlikely given the forces on the top of the ticket, but questions of the future could play on voters’ minds. The role of either Pence or Harris in the administration that wins could have significant impact on the future role of vice-president, as it is likely that either could gain substantial influence and power in the administration. But this is simply speculation, we may not truly know the impact on the role of Vice President until many years down the road.


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