An assistant president?

Jack Garner, a Texan whom Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt chose as his first VP for “balance”, put it succinctly: the vice presidency was “not worth a bucket of warm p__” [later cleaned up to “spit”]. But Garner, ironically enough, helped block FDR’s power grab when the most charismatic president ever tried to “pack” the Supreme Court. The Court — rather ineffectually — had tried to turn back the 20th century’s seemingly inevitable cascade toward “big government”. FDR, in retribution, packed Garner off into obscurity substituting leftwing populist Henry Wallace, whom he later dumped for the Big City [Pendergrast] Machine product, Harry Truman. Truman surprised every one with his competence and integrity and the rest …as they say … is history.

The vice presidency has always presented a conundrum – even for the geniis of the Founding Fathers. In their wisdom, they sought to avoid stalemate and provincialism in the electoral college. [There was little thought of popular will in that secret constitutional convention that hot Philadelphia summer of 1887.] By assigning two votes to each elector – and requiring onefor a candidate outside his own state – they hoped to assure a limited, emphatic contest. It seemed “natural” the president’s stand-in should be the runner-up he defeated. But that didn’t work out. And by 1804, a Constitutional amendment mandated electing a vice president in his own right.

But it takes a constitutional historian to search out significant vice presidents – that is, among those who did not go on to be president. Only occasionally does their tie-vote as the Senate’s presiding officer count. Yet having a credible standby for the country’s most important job is an essential function.

A familiar political pundits’ cliché, but probably true, holds vice presidential candidates are largely inconsequential in deciding elections. But when George W, Bush pulled a rabbit out of the hat and nominated Dick Cheney – after originally asking him to help make the choice – he laid down a marker. It was hardly noted. Although Cheney, veteran of half dozen federal jobs as well as a former legislator, was a highly experienced polititican, no one – given his age, his health or his lack of ambition – saw him as they had recent Republican vice presidents as a future candidate.

What Cheney became, perhaps with no precedent, was an “assistant president” – at least for the better part of the first and most of the second Bush II Administrations. From the kiss-and-tell literature, we know Cheney was intimate to all decision-making – often offfering strong opposition to other advisers and perhaps even Bush’s own inclinations especially toward the end as the Administration shredded. [Tale of unanticipated consequences: the 22nd amendment after the FDR “threat” barring a third term castrates second administrations.]

One had hopes it was a new pattern for the American chief executive. For modern life as well as The Constitution have made the presidency unconscionably demanding. A president combines many roles – separated in other countries by legality or custom. He is chief executive, the leading bureaucrat commanding a continuously growing regulatory and donor staff of more than three million. He is commander-in-chef of the world’s most powerful active military force of almost one and half million. In protocol he incarnates the nation in foreign relations but especially at its most critical domestic moments. And he is, not the least, the leader of his political party in its contest for electoral power.

Until all the memoirs by stars of the first, and perhaps second, Obama Administration, are sold out, we won’t know what role Vice Pres. Joe Biden actually played. Even leaving aside his piquancy for gaffes and including his purported reputation for expertise in foreign affairs, it seems unlikely he has served as “assistant president”.

Nor until the dust has settled in November 2012, or even later in January 2013, we won’t know whether “the Cheney model” is ever to be repeated. But whatever other political criteria were involved in Presidential Aspirant Mitt Romney’s choice, it is clear Congressman Paul Ryan again suggests the possibility of an “assistant president”. Ryan, even discounting chatter about his “wonkish” cleverness, fits the bill of knowing how to handle excruciating, endless detail the Presidency has to cope with – particularly in a time of economic crisis. Were Romney the astute business executive he claims to be, Ryan could, indeed, reinaugurate “the assistant president” concept. The thought is worth considering.



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