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Politics & Policy

What’s a Vice President For?

Vice President Kamala Harris laughs as she delivers remarks at the graduation and commissioning ceremony for the U.S. Naval Academy’s Class of 2021 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., May 28, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In today’s characteristically insightful Morning Jolt, Jim Geraghty points to a recent CNN piece on Kamala Harris’s very rough start in the vice presidency and offers five key points for understanding why things are going so poorly for her. I think he’s right on all five fronts, but I’d offer one more, which has to do with the evolution of that job in recent decades.

It has never been clear what the vice president is really supposed to do. The framers of the Constitution gave a lot of thought to the presidency as an office, but the vice presidency was created very carelessly at the last minute. The VP was originally supposed to be the person who came in second when the Electoral College chose the president, but this very quickly proved unworkable and was changed by the Twelfth Amendment in time for the 1804 election. After that, the vice president became even less significant. When the Whigs approached Daniel Webster to run for VP on Zachary Taylor’s ticket in 1848, he declined because, he said, “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin.”

A few presidents have used their VPs as real advisers, but most have struggled to figure out what to do with them. And while the vice presidency can look to an ambitious politician like a path to the presidency, it has been that only rarely. It can happen when the president dies in office, of course. But for those whose ambitions are less morbid, the vice presidency isn’t actually a great path. Only six of our 49 vice presidents (and only four since the Twelfth Amendment was enacted) have actually been elected president after serving out full terms as someone else’s VP. One of those six is president today, of course.

And here we get to Kamala Harris’s problem. She is a former vice president’s vice president. That doesn’t mean she’s fated to follow in the footsteps of Aaron Burr or Spiro Agnew, but it suggests it will be particularly difficult for her to find a plausible role.

Over the past half-century, the vice presidency has evolved implicitly into the office of a Washington insider who can guide an outsider president through the system. Six of our last eight presidents — Carter, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump — have come into office with little or no Washington experience. Barack Obama was a first-term senator who had started his presidential run almost as soon as he got to Washington. None of the others had held federal office. And each had a vice president with some meaningful Washington experience. Although the formal job of the VP has not been well defined in any of these administrations, the vice president’s pre-existing relationships and experience have given some shape to the informal role he’s played at least early on. The VP has been the insider check on an outsider president’s instincts or the insider facilitator of an outsider president’s ambitions.

The two exceptions to the outsider-president rule have been former vice presidents themselves: George H. W. Bush and Joe Biden. And both of their vice presidents — Dan Quayle and Kamala Harris — have had even more trouble than usual finding a role for themselves or bringing something to the table in the administrations they served. Quayle faced almost exactly the same sorts of criticisms that you would find of Harris in that CNN piece.

Kamala Harris has some distinct weaknesses, to be sure. She’s just an awful retail politician, and is apparently not all that great an inside player either. And all five of Jim’s points apply. But I do think the job of the vice president has gradually — and without formal changes or even much academic notice or description — evolved into an insider’s role that just isn’t really plausible when Joe Biden is the president. It’s hard to imagine what kind of vice presidential role Kamala Harris could have been well suited to, but she is particularly poorly suited to the job as it has taken shape in our time.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.


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