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Photograph by Wesley Law
Friday evening, August 10, the Goldsteins had company for dinner. Afterward, Joel Goldstein walked his dogs through their quiet Clayton neighborhood. When he returned, preceded by a flurry of black Labs, his wife told him that CNN had called. Word of Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential choice had leaked. Could Goldstein be available the next morning for an interview with Wolf Blitzer?
A scholar of the vice presidency, Goldstein had been fielding media calls about the Republican “Veepstakes 2012” all summer. He’d expected Romney to make a safer choice: Paul Ryan’s budget plan waved a red cape at the opposition. On the other hand, “Republican choices are only surprising if they are not surprising,” as Goldstein would soon write for Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter.
Saturday morning, he rose at daybreak so he could answer the phone before it woke his wife and daughter. He waited. Around 6:30 a.m., CNN called and said they wouldn’t need him after all. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called. Piers Morgan called (Goldstein later got bumped for Spike Lee). Then print reporters started calling: The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times, China’s Xinhua News Agency, Agence France-Presse…
Goldstein speaks softly, thinking through each question, yet great sound bites jump out—not because he’s playing to the media, but because he knows his subject so intimately. He winces at the bombast of Spiro Agnew, with his “nattering nabobs of negativity”; shakes his head over Nelson Rockefeller’s snobbish refusal to live at Number One Observatory Circle; talks about the feud between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr as if they were his fraternity brothers.
He fell into his study of vice presidents as a junior at Princeton University. He needed a topic for a paper, and Agnew had just resigned. Goldstein’s father suggested studying the 25th Amendment—ratified only six years earlier—which created a mechanism to fill the vacancy in midterm.
Goldstein got interested. Later, after attending the University of Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, he turned his doctoral dissertation into a book, The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution. Then he earned a degree at Harvard Law School and joined the faculty of Saint Louis University School of Law. He’s working on another book on the subject because, as he says, “this office that for most of our history had been a national joke has become a robust, consequential political institution.”
Why Do We Have a VP?
“The office was sort of an accident,” Goldstein says. “The vice presidency really was created, as best as I can tell, as a device to make the electoral system work.” The nation’s founders knew everyone would favor their state’s candidate for president. So each elector got two votes, and one had to be for someone from a different state than the elector. “To give them an incentive to vote seriously and not throw their votes away, they provided that whoever was the runner-up would be vice president.”
That system changed with the 12th Amendment in 1804, after Jefferson’s running mate, Aaron Burr, got so many votes he almost stole the presidency. Since then, each elector casts one vote for president and one for vice president, instead of the presidential runner-up becoming vice president. And “to some extent,” Goldstein says, “that made the vice presidency a less attractive position.”
Until the Carter administration, that is, when President Jimmy Carter urged Walter Mondale to pick an office in the West Wing. “The VP is now only steps away from the Oval Office,” Goldstein points out. “Carter gave Mondale walk-in rights; he could attend any meeting he wanted to.” Mondale’s weekly private luncheon with the president became a useful tradition: “It means the VP doesn’t have to talk as much in larger meetings, where there’s a chance of a leak. And if the vice president and president disagree, nobody needs to know.”
The Mondale model migrated to the Republican Party, and the office remained powerful—with perhaps a slight dip during the vice presidency of George H.W. Bush, and a noticeable dip for Dan Quayle. Was Quayle as much of a joke as he was made to seem? “No,” Goldstein says without hesitation. “He might not have been Dick Cheney, but he wasn’t Bozo the Clown, either. If you or I got to see the president three times a day, we’d have influence, too.”
At the other extreme, Cheney “represents the triumph of the new office. He comes in and says, ‘I’m really not interested in becoming president.’” Freed from the need to frequently travel and schmooze, he wielded considerable power, though Goldstein thinks the cracks about “the imperial vice president” were overplayed.
Asked which five VPs he’d invite to a dinner party, Goldstein turns pink with pleasure: “Um…wow. How could you not want to have dinner with Thomas Jefferson? Lyndon Johnson, just a larger-than-life politician. I’d want to figure out what made him tick. Also Richard Nixon… Boy, it would be really hard to limit it to five. I would definitely want to have Mondale. How could you not want to have Theodore Roosevelt or Harry Truman there? Biden, I think, is really insightful—he’s good at assessing why different people act the way they do. I think Biden would be figuring out all these guys. He probably already has.”
Do the Prez and VP Have to Get Along?
“It’s very important,” says Goldstein. “Most of us are more likely to accept suggestions and criticism from people we like.” The crankiest early pairs include former rivals John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, as well as Jefferson and Burr, who “were pretty much at each other’s throats. In the 20th century, Nixon had no use for Spiro Agnew, in part I think because Agnew was a pretty contemptible guy.” It didn’t help that during his own vice presidency, Nixon had felt shut out by Eisenhower: “Nixon and Johnson, both of whom had been vice presidents, were pretty miserable to their vice presidents, viewing them as competitors.”
The VP job is an awkward one: You have to come to it as a successful politician, then subordinate your own ambitions, ideas, and ego to the president’s. “It’s not like being a senator, where you can get up on the floor of the Senate and blast the president’s public policy,” Goldstein says. “You have to either explain or defend it. Your future is tied to somebody else’s.”
Since Carter–Mondale, the pairings have all been amicable. Goldstein’s especially fascinated by Obama–Biden, a relationship that works despite the age difference (Obama’s closer to the age of Biden’s son Beau) and style difference (Obama’s reserved and tightly disciplined; Biden’s so spontaneous, he brought out super-soakers at a media party).
On public radio in California, an interviewer posed a theory to Goldstein: “The vice president is the id to the president’s ego.” If so, Obama has given his id serious work, putting Biden in charge of implementing his economic recovery plan, removing troops from Iraq, and bolstering the middle class.
Where Do You Find a VP?
Democrats look to the Senate: Since 1952, 75 percent of the Democratic VP nominees have come from the U.S. Senate, compared to only 20 percent of the Republican nominees. “I’m not sure I know why,” Goldstein admits. “In part, I guess the Democratic Party focuses more on domestic public-policy proposals, and Republican senators are more associated with opposing legislation.” Republican nominees also tend to be those popular with the conservative base, which aren’t as common in the Senate, he adds.
When Republican presidential candidate John McCain chose a former governor, Sarah Palin, pundits speculated about the vetting process. “Oh, I think they did the vetting, and found most everything that came out later,” Goldstein says. “I think McCain concluded he was likely to lose unless he came up with a game-changer.”
Before McCain, Mondale was the only candidate who systematically considered women and minorities as running mates, Goldstein notes. “In ’88, Jesse Jackson was nominally under consideration, but that was a sham. Clinton asked Colin Powell if he’d be interested, but that would’ve been a cross-party pick, and Powell turned him down.” Mondale pulled Geraldine Ferraro from the House, “which made him vulnerable to the charge of not taking it seriously. But if you were going to consider people from groups that had been traditionally excluded, you weren’t going to find them in the traditional places.”
Almost since Biden took office, people have suggested that Obama would dump him for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or in exasperation over his occasional gaffes. Goldstein responded in a 2010 piece the Washington Post headlined “Sorry, Folks—Biden Is Here to Stay.” Substituting Clinton would make no sense, he notes: “She says she doesn’t want to be president, and if that’s the case, it’s hard to see why she’d want to be VP. And if she does want to be president, she doesn’t need to be VP to command attention… She’s probably better off being a free agent.”
For Ryan, on the other hand, “it’s a great steppingstone. It raises him out of the ranks.” Goldstein racked his brain and couldn’t come up with any previous running mate who had redefined both the nominee and the campaign as swiftly and dramatically as Ryan did. “There’s something odd about the fact that the ideas people are going to talk about have the vice president’s name on them,” Goldstein told The Dallas Morning News.
Was Ryan a game-changer in the days before the video of Romney’s speech took over? Goldstein doesn’t think so. He estimated that the VP choice would affect 1 to 2 percent of the vote. Of course, 1 to 2 percent could have clinched just enough victories in swing states.
Never underestimate a vice president.