Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Slides to Aaron Mannes Presentation on VP's role in national security affairs

Last week I gave a talk at the Hudson Institute, previewing my case study on the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission and the vice president and foreign policy for the Project for National Security Reform. The case study is embargoed until it is published, and the audio is off record. But I was permitted to distribute my presentation slides. While the slides are only the barest bones of my presentation (and don't included any of my jokes) they provide an overview of the changing role of the Vice President in the national security process, the nuts and bolts of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, and some points about the advantages and disadvantages of an active vice presidential role in foreign policy.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dreams of Power

No more blogging before bedtime for me.

When my alarm went off this morning I was very surprised. I thought I was awake and working - I'd been dreaming about the National Security Council.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Joe & the King, Joe gets a Job

President-elect Obama has a truly unenviable task. Biden, however, has the luxury of following one of the least popular VPs ever. But maybe if he works at it...

But it remains an open question what Biden will do. He has stated that he wants to be "Counselor-in-Chief." An appropriate role, more or less filled by several of his predecessors, but whether or not he will be called upon to do so is a open question. Obama has stocked his cabinet with heavyweights, inspired by Lincoln's "Team of Rivals." It is worth remembering that Lincoln's VP (Hannibal Hamlin) was not a player.

Vice President-elect Biden just appeared on Larry King Live and talked about his role in the administration. He discussed his role heading The White House Task Force on Working Families. This commission is intended to strengthen the middle class. While it will include cabinet secretaries and other power players, it is unclear what it will actually do. This may be a throwback to the many well-intentioned, but essentially powerless commissions VPs have chaired since the 1960s. They can play a valuable political role, but rarely do they exercise real power. Considering that the issues before this committee will be the responsibilities major departments like Health and Human Services - and that the task force will include power players like HHS Secretary Tom Daschle and National Economic Advisor Larry Summers - it is tough to see Biden exercising much real power from this post.

In the interview, Biden mentioned taking a leading role in preventing the proliferation and infiltration of WMD. Again, a worthy cause. But the foreign policy team is also full of heavyweights. Hillary at State is likely to command center stage wherever she goes. Gates has several advantages in any power struggle: he is already in place and is considered to have been a success as SecDef. The National Security Advisor, James Jones, is a four-star general. Again, tough to see where he will have a spot in this line-up.

That being said, if Biden has the President's ear then he has the President's ear - and in any administration that is what matters most. However, smart VPs who did have this influence kept quiet about it.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Aaron Mannes Speaking@Hudson

Mark you calendars. On December 18 at 9:30 AM I am speaking at the Hudson Institute about case study I wrote for the Project for National Security Reform about the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission. This case study was also useful spadework for my thesis. The full invitation reads:
The Project on National Security Reform (PNSR) is pleased to invite you to a Roundtable on Interagency Reform discussing a case study on “The Vice President and Foreign Policy: From "the most insignificant office" to Gore as Russia Czar,” by Aaron Mannes, researcher and PhD student at the University of Maryland.

Tuesday, December 18, 2008; 9:30 AM - 11:00 AM

Please RSVP (affirmative replies only) by sending your name and current institutional affiliation to Richard Weitz at

Location: Hudson Institute, Betsy and Walter Stern Conference Center, 1015 15th Street, N.W., 6th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20005

This case study reviews the role of the Vice President in national security policy, with a focus on Vice President Gore's role in U.S.-Russian relationships during the Clinton Administration. As the co-chair of the U.S.-Russia Bi-National Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation (better known as the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission), Vice President Gore played a central role in shaping and implementing the administration's Russia policy. Examining Gore's role in the American policy towards Russia provides useful insight regarding the advantages and disadvantages of an active Vice Presidential role in the national security process.

The Project on National Security Reform (PNSR) is a non-partisan initiative that seeks to improve the U.S. Government’s ability to integrate all elements of national power and more effectively respond to the strategic challenges of the 21st century. The PNSR case studies inform the other analytic work of PNSR by highlighting recurring trends in how the U.S. national security system addresses complex national security problems.

Attendees at PNSR workshops may use the information as background, but may not identify the speaker, the other attendees, or PNSR itself or quote anything said at the event.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Has the National Economic Council Hit the Big Time?

The National Economic Council (NEC) was founded by the last Democratic President. He promised to "focus like a laser" on the economy. The NEC was supposed to be an economic equivalent to the National Security Council. It was viewed with some skepticism within the bureaucracy. National security almost always includes two heavyweight departments (State and Defense) and often other agencies as well. Treasury does not have a peer competitor on economic policy. Smaller players on economic policy were also not keen on this new structure. To mollify the Council of Economic Advisers, it was agreed that the NEC wouldn't have any actual economists - it would manage process rather than forge policy.

The NEC however had an important asset. Its first chief, Robert Rubin, was an able player with access to the President and an excellent relationship with Lloyd Bentsen the Treasury Secretary. But it wasn't clear if this new structure was here to stay, or merely an effective vehicle for Rubin.

When Bentsen stepped down, Rubin replaced him (just as National Security Advisers have often replaced Secretaries of State.) When Rubin stepped down as Secretary of Treasury he was replaced by his deputy at Treasury Lawrence Summers.

Now, in the Obama administration, Summers is the head of the NEC. Offhand I cannot think of a Secretary of State coming back to be the National Security Adviser. Kissinger held both positions at once - but started as the NSA.

So does this mean that the NEC has now become an important component of the White House bureaucracy? The NEC wasn't exactly front an center in the Bush Administration. More than likely this is a return to the NEC's roots as a vehicle for an out-sized personality that the President wants to keep close at hand.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Willacy County v. Cheney: Prosecutor Indicts Ham Sandwich

So, Dick Cheney has been indicted - not by the ICC or Spain's Baltasar Garzon (who has a thing for indicting international figures for crimes against humanity or by some other avatar of human rights.

No, this indictment stems from Cheney's holdings in a company that invests in for-profit prisons. Alberto Gonzalez, Bush confidant and the former Attorney General, was also indicted. Here's a descriptive bit from the San Antonio Express-News:
Cheney is accused of contributing to the neglect of federal immigration detainees by contracting for-profit prisons.

“By working through corporations as prisons for profit, Defendant Richard Cheney has committed at least misdemeanor assaults of our inmates and/or detainees,” the indictment reads, adding that a “money trail” can be traced to Cheney's substantial investments in the Vanguard Group, which invests in privately run prisons.

Megan Mitchell, spokeswoman for Cheney, said: “We have not received an indictment. We haven't received a call from the district attorney's office. ... We haven't heard anything from the district attorney.”

[Willacy County DA Juan Angel] Guerra said he kept Operation Goliath secret for four months over concern that pressure would be brought to bear to stop it.

He said “everything was being worked out of my house” and only one trusted member of his staff knew about it. He said he enlisted the help of people all over the country and talked to witnesses all over the country. Everyone who helped was assigned a biblical name. Guerra was known as David.
We've heard this story before, deranged local prosecutor goes through the looking glass to take on the powerful at the heart of a vast conspiracy. Paging Oliver Stone...

Guerra, the re-incarnation of Jim Garrison, issued a whole slew of indictments against local officials for "official abuse of official capacity and official corruption."

Guerra has been indicted himself (for public theft) and responded by camping out in front of the county jail with goats, roosters, and a horse. He was later defeated in the primary and will soon be out of office. No doubt he can find a gig on the international anti-Cheney circuit.

There is a very good chance the case will be dismissed, but it will be interesting to watch how this story moves through the international media, blogosphere, and labyrinth of conspiracy theories.

And of course it proves the old adage, a good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Palin & The Coming Ice Age?

In Slate Christopher Hitchens (another incredibly prolific writer who I envy) reports that Sarah Palin attended a church where the preacher:
says that Alaska will be "one of the refuge states in the Last Days."
Funny thing about that...

Over twenty years ago, while I was in high school, I thought I was going to be a writer (or a stand-up comedian - I am grateful YouTube did not exist then to record my "musings"). My primary themes and subjects revolved around baseball and science fiction.

I began a novel about a Senator from Alaska, who, being part Eskimo knew the tundra like Bedouins knew the desert. This Senator had determined that a global ice age was on its way. In those happy days we could still chose our apocalyptic scenario - ice age, global warming, nuclear, or alien invasion.

So my part-Eskimo Senator was going to pull Alaska out of the Union in order to use its oil wealth to develop a new society that could continue surviving the glaciers and thus save civilization. I envisioned it as a political thriller, with independent Alaska joining OPEC and forcing an oil boycott until the US set them free.

OK - so I was a really weird kid, and it is probably for the best that I did not end up trying to become a fiction writer. Still, somehow I was on to something.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Implications of the VP as a Legislative Office

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, of Instapundit fame, has a thoughtful op-ed about the Vice Presidency in today’s New York Times, which is a shorter version of an article he wrote for the Northwestern University Law Review. (I can blog, I can write an op-ed, and I can write scholarly articles – but not all at once – oh, I envy him.)

His core argument is that the Vice President is in fact part of the legislative branch, and not the executive. The only Constitutional description of the Vice President’s role is to preside over the Senate and cast the tie-breaking vote when necessary – strictly legislative in function. Some folks are pretty excited about this, since it means Cheney was not out of bounds in claiming to be a “legislative officer” rather than an executive branch official (to avoid disclosing some documents), that Sarah Palin’s understanding in the VP debate of the VP's role was more accurate than Biden’s understanding, and more broadly that the chattering classes that scoffed at Cheney’s gambit are in fact wrong.

Interesting so far, but Reynolds takes this debate much farther, noting that if the VP is a legislative officer, then the President cannot grant him executive authority (due to separation of powers) and the Cheney model of an activist Vice Presidency is not permitted. Reynolds notes that it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will take on this issue – but that there are sound reasons for an inactive VP. Reynolds refers to the VP as a “spare tire” that “should be kept pristine, for when they are really needed.” When Presidents resign or are impeached, “a vice president who is enmeshed in the affairs of the president cannot offer a fresh start for the executive branch.”

These are sound arguments, and for most of the country’s history this was effectively how it worked. Vice presidents were marginal figures of little consequence. But, in an era of instant communications and truly global national security problems the Vice President needs to be “kept in the loop.”

Reynolds grants this, citing the infamous example of Truman who was unaware of the atom bomb when he took power (Truman was also unfamiliar with FDR’s diplomatic strategy for the post-war era.) But still, he calls for a VP not engaged in day-to-day governance.

Running the Numbers

Day-to-day involvement is an advantage for a VP who takes office on the death or incapacity of the President. But this same involvement is to the detriment of the nation in the case of an impeachment or resignation.

Eight presidents have died in office and there were at least four other close calls (Wilson was incapacitated, Eisenhower and Johnson were both seriously ill while in office, and Reagan was shot.) Only two Presidents have been impeached and a third resigned. So the odds would favor an engaged VP as the best course because Presidents appear substantially more likely to die than to be forced or resign from office. But, in general, people today are healthier and live longer (and Presidential security is far tighter) so the likelihood of a death in office – while always possible - is less and less likely.

At the same time (working with an admittedly tiny dataset) two of the three cases of impeachment or resignation have occurred in the last 35 years - so it can be plausibly argued that the future may hold more impeachments and resignations. In the case of Nixon’s resignation, the VP had resigned only a short time before (for unrelated reasons) thrusting an unelected President onto the scene. As difficult as this was, if Agnew’s crimes had come out a bit later, he might have become President (bad enough) and then been impeached or forced to resign in his own right. The Nixon-Agnew era was trauma enough, but actually having the Speaker of the House step into the Presidency would have been worse for the nation as a whole.

Recent history makes the spare tire metaphor for the VP’s role compelling and worth considering.

Middle Ground: Mondale vs. the Metaphor

But people are not tires and rarely do people become better at something while sitting and waiting. Is there some way of getting the best of both worlds? That is a VP engaged in the process but not overly enmeshed in it.

That depends on what being “in the loop” means. For the VP to sit over in their Senate Office and receive the daily briefings is better than nothing, but much of the policy process is informal – and the roles of specific personalities is essential. To truly be in the loop, the VP has to be in the process, dealing with the key players on a regular basis as debates take place and policies take shape. In an emergency transition the key people will still be there – it is important that the VP have a certain level of familiarity with them.

Reynolds cites Mondale approvingly, writing that he maintained a distance from public decision-making. However, Mondale was very engaged in the process – but he maintained a very light touch and was extremely discreet. Bush 41 (as Reagan’s VP) and Gore followed this model. (Gore did not jump to take on Gore-Chernomyrdin – he made sure it was the President’s idea.) While Gore’s links to Clinton may have hurt him in the 2000 elections, had Clinton resigned or been forced from office, Gore would have been accepted as President. In fairness, this may be due to the nature of Clinton’s offenses – he was not impeached over policy matters.

Unlike his activist predecessors, Cheney held no future political ambitions, consequently he was less concerned about being associated with particular policies and could operate with a heavier hand on the policy process.

Both Cheney and Mondale drew inspiration for their roles as VP from a similar source, the failed Vice Presidency of Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller, a well-known national figure, was selected by Ford to add credibility to his own accidental Presidency. As VP, Rockefeller attempted to run domestic affairs by taking control of the Domestic Policy Council – a high profile position. Instead it became a burden and Rockefeller himself became a lightning rod in the internecine White House power struggles. Mondale talked extensively to his predecessor and probably took the lesson of not being heavily associated with any given policies or taking on formal responsibilities and instead operating behind the scenes.

Cheney had been Ford’s chief of staff and ran interference on Rockefeller. He may have taken different - more operational - lessons about how to make the Vice Presidency a power base.

Returning to Reynolds’ analysis, the VP is an odd position – a prominent nationally elected office with almost no real power, but a very real and essential role. Simply warehousing the VP may not be an option, but in playing a policy role Vice Presidents should hold fast to the motto:
Discretion is the better part of power.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Agnew: The Rise & Fall of the Greek Veep

Thirty-five years ago a seminal event in the history of the Vice Presidency occurred. Spiro Agnew pleaded no contest to one count of income tax evasion and resigned from his office. In the speech (see the YouTube audio below) he refers to this resignation as insignificant in the context of America's peace and prosperity. But in fact Agnew's rise and fall had a profound impact on the course of the Vice Presidency.

While Agnew was a political cipher in the Nixon Administration and glad-handed by staffers to keep him away from anything important - his limitations and malfeasance set the stage for new trends in national politics.

The resignations in short order of both a Vice President (Agnew) and a President (Nixon)led to the "outsider" candidacy of Jimmy Carter. Since then, almost every Presidential election has featured an "outsider" candidate and anti-Washington "insider" rhetoric has become a stock feature of the American political scene. It took an outsider President to seriously consider an empowered Vice President - and that too has become an important (although still relatively new) feature of American politics.

It is possible that this would have occurred without Agnew's resignation - Nixon's resignation alone would have been sufficient to shock the political system (although considering how close the 1976 election was - Carter won 50.1% vs. Ford's 48% of the popular vote) Agnew's actions may in fact have been an important factor.

However, Agnew's resignation led to Ford's appointment and ultimately taking office not having won a national election to anything. The rapid turnover in the nation's highest offices, as Marie Natoli wrote in her American Prince, American Pauper: The Contemporary Vice Presidency in Perspective, changed views of the Vice Presidency, focusing on "the job which the Vice-President is really all about: the Presidency."

Bonus video: Agnew castigating effete snobs

Friday, October 3, 2008

VP Debate Review

It is all too easy to fall into the Pundit trap, and attempt to provide instant canned insights. With a hot Vice Presidential race (that includes a hot VP), the temptation is overwhelming. But the point of this blog (and my dissertation) is deeper than that – it is using the Vice President as a window into the national security process and trying to figure out how the Vice President can both be helpful to the President and better prepared for the Presidency if need be.

So I’ll try to push things that way, but some punditry is unavoidable.

Unfortunately, it isn’t easy. Reading all of the pundits before the debate, I realized, I had nothing new to say about it. Biden needed to not bully Palin and not gaffe. Palin needed to not gaffe and needed to stand there and take her lumps and not look to miserable doing it. There was a substantial chance that one or the other would not be up to it – but they both managed. Biden definitely won (was really quite masterful on the whole), but not by a knockout. Palin was good enough (having set expectations very low, not drooling was probably sufficient.) It is possible that radio listeners thought she lost by a huge margin, since her statements were not terribly clear or coherent. But combined with a nice smile and some winks, she was appealing enough on screen. In my preview of the Obama-McCain debate I described McCain’s lack of polish as a speaker, his apparent lack of artifice, as the most clever artifice of all. Perhaps the same will apply to Palin’s debate performance.

(It is possible that she is studying Tina Fey and imitating herself. On that note, my wife burst into laughter about ten minutes into the debate when she realized that the inevitable SNL sketch will feature Keenan Thompson as Gwen Ifill.)

Defining their Roles

There were a few times when the debate turned to the role of the Vice President. Ifill asked a specific question about the Administration’s claim that the Vice Presidency resides in both the executive and legislative branches. Biden rejected this as ridiculous. He explained that the VP’s role in the Senate is very limited and that the Administration had been out of bounds in its efforts to expand the VP’s role in the legislative branch. Palin (probably less familiar with the issue) said that she was hoping the Constitution would provide some flexibility in terms of shaping the Vice President’s role.

Interesting, in that light, that Biden said he would be the administration’s pointman on legislative affairs. The Senate is extremely jealous of its prerogatives and (starting with John Adams) has pushed back against Vice Presidents who tried to ride herd on the Senate. No less formidable a figure than Lyndon Baines Johnson (a true master of the Senate) was pushed from power when he became Vice President. Nelson Rockefeller, a formidable figure – but without Senate experience – tried act as lobbyist-in-chief and quickly became persona non grata in the cloakrooms where the real deals are done.

Vice Presidents who presided with a light hand did much better, and some Vice Presidents (such as Mondale) did some very careful lobbying. However, Vice Presidential lobbying can create questions about the Vice President’s impartiality as a Presiding officer. Therefore, the executive branch lobbying operations are kept separate from the Vice President, who serves rather as a point of contact between the two branches might be a better term for this role. Biden is an experienced Senator and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to this role.

Palin should be extremely careful in how she handles the Senate. If she displays the brash confidence for which she has become known, the Senate will quickly put her in her place. The last governors to preside over the Senate were Rockefeller and Agnew – both had troubles in that role.

Palin also said she looked forward to leading on the administration’s energy policy. It is certainly possible that she will have real authority in this role, but more than likely (particularly since she has no real DC powerbase or experience) this will be a throwback to the commissioner role that Vice Presidents played in the 1960s. These commissions were generally “feel-good” initiatives intended to make it appear something was being done but had little actual power.

As I’ve written before, an ongoing challenge for a McCain administration will be giving her substantial work that both makes use of her talents and prepares her for power – should that become necessary.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Debate Ephemera

I haven't posted my reactions to the debate yet, mostly because it was soooo boring. The most interesting issue of course was the fiscal crisis (which I don't really understand) but it was guaranteed that neither candidate would say much about it because of the ongoing negotiations in Congress.

However, I chided Obama for promising to go over the budget line by line in his speech in Denver. In the debate Obama was quite sober on this topic as McCain launched into his obsession with earmarks. A Senator who wants to invest his energy into fighting with the Air Force to save a few billion dollars on a deal for aerial tankers is really doing the American people a service. For a President to do the same is a huge waste of time. McCain wanted to freeze non-defense discretionary funding. The problem is that this represents something less than a third of the budget. Even a 10% cut would not resolve the fundamental issues and the earmarks themselves are less than $20 billion - a lot of money, but less than 2% of the entire federal budget.

The real fiscal action is in the non-discretionary spending (those enormous entitlement programs.) A Senator taking those on alone is Quixotic. These are the kinds of big issues that, while not easy, are on a scale that only the President can lead.

The McCain campaign would probably argue that the earmarks are an ethical issue, showing the growing corruption in Congress and their power to perpetuate themselves in office. Maybe, but not really. This Congress is probably not the most corrupt in history and generally the American people have assumed throughout American history that Congress is a corrupt, venal institution.

If McCain hopes to lead a massive struggle to reduce the federal government's role in the economy, more power to him. There is massive frustration among the Republican rank and file that the reformers they sent into office over a decade ago have presided over a massive increase in federal spending. But if McCain believe he make Congress a less self-serving institution then he is hoping for a change in human nature and that is more of a liberal project.


For a good overview of how the candidates stand on Pakistan, a particular interest of mine visit this fine, balanced entry at The Pakistan Policy Blog.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Clash of Styles: Pre-Debate Thoughts


Black-jowled, swaggering, snarling, fighting against age and an overwhelming weariness, Old Burleigh Grimes took fame by the throat today and claimed her for his own.
This overwrought passage by sports-writing legend Red Smith describes the1931 St. Louis Cardinals World Series victory over the Philadelphia Athletics. But somehow I keep inserting the name John McCain. His career was made when, under duress, he was stripped down – past rank, background, and personality – to raw character. This is his stock-in-trade. He presents himself without nuance as unpackaged and raw. The Presidency is hell, but someone has got to do it and – as a man who has already been there and back – he is the man we can trust to take this on this awesome responsibility. He will make the tough calls, no matter

McCain is formidable in small groups and will be a skilled debater. But he is a lousy speaker. Despite a career in politics, he still struggles with the teleprompter. His speeches are free of artifice and come off as unvarnished truth and this, perhaps, is the greatest artifice of all.


Biden was pilloried for calling Obama “clean” because it carried the implication that for an African-American to be hygienic was somehow remarkable. But I think I know what Biden was trying to say. Obama is clean the way DiMaggio at the plate or Willie Mays patrolling centerfield was clean. Their motions were stripped of the herky-jerky of regular life, and focused and suited to the purpose at hand. DiMaggio’s swing was elegant, a word which can mean both simple and refined. Another word might be neat or graceful or clean.

Obama walked, with no apparent effort, into the national scene and to the nomination. Where Bill Clinton could read a grocery list and have such a good time that the listener enjoyed it too. From Obama’s lips the grocery list would be somehow uplifting.

The speed of Obama’s rise and the ease of his eloquence are deceptive. Willie Mays worked hard to control centerfield, his natural talent and grace only making it appear easy. Obama too has a hard core of real stuff to him.

What We Want

Do we truly expect to learn anything about their policies from this debate? Most people who follow politics even casually have a pretty good idea what each party seeks to do and what it believes in.

We also don’t really know what makes for an effective President. In some ways, the most we can do is try to eliminate the people who are not up to the job. The multi-year obstacle course we force our Presidential aspirants to traverse is an attempt to do this. I once heard boxing described as “running a marathon, doing trigonometry, and playing chess all at the same time.” Cubing that description perhaps gives a sense of what it takes to run for President.

The debate is just another obstacle. Part of it is stamina. Can the candidate stand their, head to head with their opponent, with the world watching, and not get flustered. Because if they can’t they aren’t up to the job. And then, with all that pressure, what do we see. Do the candidates show a flare of temper or condescension, a telling stumble, or a flash of wit or graciousness?

It is, in so many ways, an awful system. But I remember Churchill’s aphorism, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others.”

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Insider Picks

At a recent debate between surrogates for the two Presidential candidates the biggest applause line was when Obama's surrogate said that McCain's selection of Palin says it all about McCain's judgment.

What strikes me as interesting, in light of the Insider/Outsider paradigm that shapes the selection and roles of Vice Presidents, is how Palin she fits into the pattern of picks by insider Presidential candidates.

Overall, the VP picks by outsider candidates, starting with Carter, have been awfully Presidential. It includes Mondale, Bush 41, and Gore. Cheney was well-regarded when he was selected, and Biden (although some have their reservations) is also generally considered a good choice who leavens some of Obama's weaknesses. The one outsider candidate who lost, Dukakis, chose Lloyd Bentson - who most polls showed was the single most appealing figure on either party's ticket. On the basic issue of whether or not the VP was considered "Presidential" by the general public - all of these selections were successful. Six for six.

Now consider the VP picks by the insider candidates. Muskie, Kemp, and Lieberman were all generally considered sound, if - in the cases of Muskie and Kemp - unremarkable. Then there was the McGovern fiasco. McGovern had two choices, first Eagleton who then withdrew after it was revealed that he had undergone electro-shock therapy. Then McGovern picked R. Sargent Shriver, who had never held elected office before. Strictly, speaking, Eagleton was actually a solid pick based on resume - but he did end up becoming a problem for the campaign. Ford also had two picks, first his choice when he succeeded Nixon the Presidency and then his choice when he ran in 1976. Rockefeller was chosen in great part because he was considered eminently qualified to be President. However, he ended up not working out, and when Ford was nominated he chose Bob Dole. Based on his resume Dole was a sound pick, but he blew it in his debate with Mondale.

Then there are a series of picks which were made for extremely political purposes. In this, Nixon (unsurprisingly) takes the cake. He chose Agnew because he was an "ethnic" and held onto him as impeachment insurance. When Agnew resigned, Nixon chose Ford a sounder choice on the whole, who actually did serve, reasonably well, as President.

Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro, a three-term congresswoman from New York. It was a historic pick. But for some it looked like a transparent attempt to appeal to women voters and, because the National Organization of Women had lobbied hard for a female running mate, it made Mondale look like he had caved under pressure.

Four years later, Bush chose Quayle. In fairness, based on resume Quayle was not a bad choice, he was into his second Senate term and had served two terms in the House beforehand. However, Bush reportedly choose Quayle figuring that a young and good-looking running mate would lend a certain appeal to his ticket. Whatever his virtues, Quayle appeared callow on TV and was generally considered a liability. In 2004 Kerry chose John Edwards, who had served a single undistinguished term in the Senate. Edwards did not make any missteps that would register on the Quayle scale. But he spent a fair amount of effort trying to convince voters that he was not too inexperienced in his 2008 run (and that was against Barak Obama...)

And then there is Sarah Palin.

Out of 13 VP picks by insider Presidential nominees, seven had serious credibility problems with substantial components of the general public.

Certainly one can quibble with some of my calls. Maybe John Edwards or Ferraro were regarded as solid picks. Sill, even with the most generous judgments of the insider's choices and more critical judgments of the outsider candidates' selections the the discrepancy is outstanding. There have been no outsider candidate choices equivalent to Agnew, or even Quayle and Ferraro.

The overall trend appears that outsider candidates think very carefully about who they want to work with and who could become President. The insider candidates want to get women to vote for them.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Debate Coach for Palin?

Reviews of Sarah Palin's performance in her interview by Charlie Gibson have been split, pretty much as would be expected. Those who did not care for Palin thought she appeared uncertain or ignorant of international affairs. Those who liked Palin praised her and called Gibson condescending. In that vein, the formidable Ruth Wedgewood (a leading scholar of international law and professor at SAIS) writes in National Review Online:
Most women, even now, are quite familiar with being talked over and not so subtly demeaned when they venture an opinion. It happens at dinner parties, in Washington and New York, where Gibson reigns as a network anchor, and even in educational classrooms.

It can happen to students who venture to Ivy League colleges without the benefit of a private preparatory school. They may never have heard about a “Nash equilibrium” or “Pareto optimality.” It doesn’t mean they are stupid or without cunning.

There was no evident need to demand of Palin three times in a row how she could consider herself to have the necessary qualifications for the vice presidency.
But Prof. Wedgewood goes beyond issues of style and takes Gibson to task on his badgering Palin to define the Bush doctrine:
But Gibson is wrong to suppose that the right of anticipatory self-defense began with George Bush. Indeed, it was put forward early in the history of the American republic, by Secretary of State Daniel Webster, in the so-called “Caroline affair” in 1837.

And strangely enough, this doctrine was carved out in the frozen North. In the middle of winter, American sympathizers crossed the Niagara River to help Canadians in their rebellion against the British Crown. The British burned their boat and sent one man to his death over the falls. Daniel Webster conceded that the British were permitted to use force because the "necessity of that self-defence” was “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”

It would have been delicious if Governor Palin had responded with the name Daniel Webster. But she had the idea, and one may excuse even a national television anchor for not knowing the doctrine’s real origin.
Delicious indeed - is Wedgewood applying to be Palin's debate coach? The McCain campaign could do far worse.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Palin & Biden: Secondary Challenges

Now we know who the Vice Presidential choices are. They are both politically astute choices - appealing in various ways. But this blog is not about punditry (although a bit is unavoidable.) The question is how these VPs will fit into their president's policy process.

Biden: Old Hand or Big Mouth?

Biden was a solid insider choice for an outsider Presidential candidate. It is a well-established paradigm. Many pundits argued that Obama needed a Cheney - arguably, Obama may have gotten a bit more Cheney then he would have hoped.

Cheney was the first elected VP in living memory who had no presidential aspirations. Previous active VPs were careful about managing their profile and appearance to protect their future political prospects. Mondale's influence is famously hard to assess because he was known for not leaving fingerprints on his initiatives. While Cheney was discreet, his unconcern about his public profile may have led him to be out front on some issues where a lower profile would have been wise.

Cheney however, was a staffer and could bring that view to the Vice Presidency. Biden, like Cheney, is an unlikely future President (barring tragedy.) If Obama wins the election, Biden will be 74 in 2016. Biden is a loquacious Senator, not used to playing second fiddle. Biden also loves (his own) ideas and may go public with them when discretion would be wiser. Come to think of it, Biden may be a new Rockefeller (see the end of my last post.)

Palin: At the Kid's Table?

The challenges facing Palin's ability to play a role in the administration are substantial. (See this blog's very first post.) McCain is an insider, so he has a gaggle of long-serving staffers who will tend to protect their turf. The last insider President was Bush 41, and while Quayle (despite his public standing) was knowledgeable and respected in the Senate on national security issues - he exercised minimal influence on the Bush administration. A former CIA director and UN Ambassador, Bush 41 did not really need Quayle's input. And if Bush did need foreign policy advice he could turn to his long-time friends Jim Baker and Brent Scowcroft.

The last outsider VP was Spiro Agnew, who, again, exercised no serious influence (granted, he did have, ahem, personal limitations - but the Nixon staffers froze him out as well.)

The prospect of the VP becoming President is a real one, so it is important that the VP be engaged in the process so that (unlike Harry Truman) they can take the reins of national security relatively smoothly.

Palin faces huge challenges of having minimal national security experience and of probably not being taken into the inner circle.

One solution would be to allow Palin to chair a component of the National Security Council (Bush 1 was vice chair* of the Crisis Management Committee at Reagan's NSC) in order to embed her in the process. The problem there is that she may not do a capable job. If the President is forced to remove the VP from a position, it will leak out. Perhaps establishing a sort of national security apprenticeship in which the VP plays an active role on this sort of committee and then moves into the chair would be a compromise.

It will be a serious issue that the McCain will have to address, both in the campaign and if there is a McCain administration.

*The President is always Chair, but doesn't always go to the meetings.

Barack & the Budget: Promises & Process

In his acceptance speech, Senator Obama promised to go over the budget line by line to weed out federal spending. This is the typical kind of promise Presidential candidates make. But actually doing so would be incredibly irresponsible. The budget is over 1300 pages long. Assume it takes an hour to go over a page (not unrealistic because many of the pages would require extensive background information and meetings) and that the President puts in a 10 hour day (they put in longer days, but he will also need to get his national security briefings and receive foreign dignitaries etc.) Actually going over the budget would take 130 working days, or more than one third of his time in office. Many of these efforts would require lobbying and log-trading on with Congress and many of the victories would be Pyrrhic. In the dangerous world we live in, would saving $1.5 million dollars by scaling down a new tourist center in Akron be worth hours of the President's time?

Of course, Obama's promise was just rhetoric. He won't really do this, a President's most valuable resource is his time and, like every President before him, he will pick his fights carefully. Battles over small-scale pork-barrel projects will not be getting priority.

Budget Review Process

In fact, there is already an extensive budget review process, through the all-powerful Office of Management and Budget. In the Bush administration, cabinet members could appeal OMB decisions to the budget review board, chaired by ---- Vice President Cheney.

This is the only formal power-base Cheney possessed. Everything else was contingent on his relationship with the President. There are two interesting aspects to this role.

First, Cheney got his teeth in the Ford Administration. Vice President Rockefeller hoped to "run" domestic policy and was the Vice Chair (the President was chair) of the Domestic Policy Council. Instead of being a power-base, it was an enormous drain on Rockefeller's energy and it turned Rockefeller into a lightning rod in the policy wars. Cheney no doubt took the lesson that a formal, high-profile VP role had major costs. Instead, Cheney exercised influence through a low-profile, little noticed insider position.

It also illustrates the limits of Cheney's influence. Cheney is a small government, fiscal conservative. Big budget expenditures like the drug program are not Cheney initiatives - they came from the President. At the budget review board, Cheney could have substantial influence on the margins - but the broad course (as always) is set by the President. The story of Cheney's impact on the broader course has yet to be told.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bite o'Biden

Watching the Colbert Report, Mike Huckabee described Biden as a vanilla choice for the Vice Presidency. That doesn't seem quite fair. Rum raisin seems a better fit - mostly vanilla - but with a little bit of something else. Something that either makes it much better or much worse, but with a bit of rum (Biden's self deprecating good humor) to push it towards better.

He proved he will do one important VP job well. He can give a good speech and the VP spends a lot of time out on the trail giving stump speeches. He tried to show his foreign policy credentials by naming all of the big foreign policy problems we face. He wants to hold Russia accountable - terrific, the mice wanted to bell the cat. And he reiterated his obsession with talking to the Iranians (Clinton vets will remind him what a Sisyphean torment negotiating with the mullahs will be.) But convention speeches are not policy addresses, they are show. Joe Biden gave a good one.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Biden (not Bayh, boo hoo) assessment

Obama picked Biden, a reasonable choice. Obama is an outsider and Biden is an insider, able to give Obama the kind of inside advice about how DC works that he will need should he become president. That Biden has particularly strong credentials on international affairs, an area where Obama's resume is thin.

Although Biden is being criticized for being not representing change, he is an "ideas" guy so he could still be positioned to represent new thinking.

Unfortunately, ideas are cheap in DC - implementation is what really matters. Is this Biden's strength - I'll leave that to long time Hill watchers to judge.

Another crucial characteristic for VPs is discretion (and remembering who is President.) Even disagreeing with the President in staff meetings can leak out. This may not be the mercurial Sen. Biden's strength. Of course, outspoken VPs might find themselves relegated to crowning produce queens in the farm belt. (Alben Barkley liked that job...)

Still, overall, a decent solid and serious pick.

Biden Train

Commentators keep noting that Biden takes Amtrak to get to Capitol Hill from his home in Wilmington. This is evidence of his common touch. He has also used his weight on the Hill as an advocate for Amtrak.

There are obvious positive spins to this - but there is the negative as well. He pushes for service that costs tax-payer dollars that benefits him. (He lives just far away enough that driving each way would be hassle.) Thanks to Amtrak he doesn't need a second home, but can work during his commute without having to pay for a driver. Good deal!

Maybe we should all try to do this (personally I am a fan of a solid rail transit network). But it could be spun another way, that this is a typical "liberal" program, subsidizing something that ends up benefiting the not-so-needy (sort of like rent control in Cambridge, MA.)

What about Hillary?

Apparently Hillary fans are mad because she wasn't even considered. But there was a simple reason for not considering her. A President does not need an ex-President hanging around the White House - no matter who it is. (Recall the abortive Reagan-Ford negotiations in 1980.)

That the ex-President in question is Bill Clinton might exacerbate the issue...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Obama's Options: Someone Just Right

Tomorrow, Obama will announce his Vice Presidential candidate. He knows who it is, but none of the rest of us know anything.

Obama said the right thing, noting that first of all he needed someone who could become President and second someone who could help him govern. He did not say, but perhaps should have, that he needs someone he can get along with – because the single most salient fact about Vice Presidents is that they can’t really be fired until the next election (and doing so that point usually looks pretty bad.)

The third quality is a bad sign for two possibles, Joe Biden and Jim Webb, both of whom have been known for gaffes. Vice Presidents can never show any deviance from the President’s policy – neither of these gentleman, worthy in many regards, could be guaranteed on that front.

It is difficult to say who is fit to be President – we just tend to know it when we see. But for aid in governance, Obama is a classic outsider with limited Washington experience. So first and foremost, he needs someone who knows Washington. Other knowledge deficits are national security and executive experience.

Obama may be running on his judgment, but process is about how things actually get done – and the learning curve is steep. Mondale, Gore, Cheney, and to a lesser extent Bush 1 served as senior counselors who could assist the President in getting stuff done. Mondale took over the White House agenda setting process, Cheney ran the Budget Review Committee. Bush 1 ran the NSC’s Crisis Management Committee.

This is the stuff that will flummox Obama and he will need a VP who can take on these kinds of nuts and bolts tasks, disagree in private – but remain loyal in public.

Arguably, the best relationship between a President and his VP was Clinton-Gore, where, in addition to having strengths in policy areas where Clinton was weak – Gore also brought discipline to the process.

Virginia’s Tim Kaine has been much touted, but he has zero Washington or national security experience. None. In fact his resume most closely resembles that of Spiro Agnew (former Baltimore County Executive and 2 years into his first term as Governor of Maryland.) Kaine is undoubtedly a better and smarter man than Agnew, but Agnew was the last outsider VP and – personal weaknesses aside – there were process issues that isolated him as well.

Golden Boy is the Golden Mean

Evan Bayh is called the safe choice, but he is also an excellent choice. He (paralleling Al Gore) was the son of a Senator and attended St. Albans. In his own right he was a two term governor and has been in the Senate for 10 years – where he as served on Armed Forces and Select Intelligence. Resume-wise he is exactly the kind of person Obama needs.

Within the party he is a moderate, who has spoken about the importance of Democrats reaching out to more conservative groups. This is also a classic VP selection strategy – picking someone from the opposite wing of the party (Reagan-Bush, Carter-Mondale, Kerry-Edwards – are just a few of the examples.)

Finally, Bayh is low-key and unlikely to overshadow Obama but likely to make a good impression. Bayh’s background shows him as a person with good qualifications for the Presidency and the right skills to help govern. Bayh would highlight Obama’s good judgment, and further the campaign’s youthful appearance.

At the same time, VP would serve Bayh well. Bayh is an oddly unforceful speaker, but Veeps spend a lot of time on the campaign trail (party-building) and Bayh would get better in this role very quickly.

If Biden is a bit too much and Kaine is not quite enough - Bayh is just right.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Aaron Burr & the Future of the VP

I really should have started this blog on July 11, it was the 204th anniversary of a seminal moment in the evolution of the Vice Presidency - the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

The story is told in many places and there was lots of bad blood between the two men. Burr apparently held Hamilton responsible both for robbing him of the Presidency in the election of 1800 and ruining his chances in the 1804 New York gubernatorial race. It is possible it was all an "honor" thing in which - like most duels of the day - everyone was supposed to fire blindly, miss and make-up.

Things didn't go according to plan. Hamilton had actually been involved in about a dozen duels (10 as principle), but all of which were resolved without any actual shooting. But his son died in a duel. Burr did not stick to the script, he actually shot Hamilton, who died 36 hours later. It is possible that Burr panicked - it is also possible he really hated Hamilton.

At the time dueling was illegal, but tolerated in some places (such as New Jersey, where the duel was fought.)

The unseemly political fight combined with the duel itself destroyed Burr's political career. He was charged with, but never tried for, Hamilton's murder. He finished his term as Vice President, but was later charged with treason for some sort of bizarre plan to start an independent state in the Louisiana territory. Again, he was never tried.

The big question is what this did to the evolution of the office? The first VP, John Adams tried to establish the office - and failed. The Senate didn't like him and Washington gave lip service to giving him a role, but didn't really follow through. The office had no institutional base and was not well-positioned. Did the Burr fiasco condemn the role to second-raters? Under Jefferson and for the two administrations after him, Secretary of State was the figure being groomed for the Presidency - not the VP. Because of its weakness, but legal proximity to the Presidency, the office might have seemed a potential magnet for schemers - thus guaranteeing that nothing would be done to enhance the role.

Or maybe, no one saw any need for a powerful Vice President, when Senators answered their own correspondence, Presidents didn't have bodyguards, and government overall didn't do all that much governing.

SIDENOTE - After the Biblical Aaron (Moses' brother) Aaron Burr was the first famous person I learned about who shared my name. So I always had a soft-spot for him. Maybe I was fated to write about the VP. The Biblical Aaron played second-fiddle in his career too. He however, was known as a peace-maker - Aaron Burr, most assuredly was not.

I was pleased to learn, a bit later on, about Henry Aaron, baseball great and health care policy analyst. Imagining excelling in such two different fields!

Friday, July 25, 2008

McCain's VP Choice & National Security

In The Wall Street Journal today, Ken Khachigian, a long-time speechwriter and political strategist advises McCain on his VP choice, arguing that the VP makes very little difference in the election so:
Pick someone you know. You have spent 26 years in office. You have traveled with colleagues and political allies. You have spent long hours with them. You have campaigned with them, stayed up late in conversations, shared painful moments, heard their speeches, learned their thought processes, and measured their judgment.

Somewhere in his experience is a person in whom Mr. McCain can place the ultimate trust and confidence. And someone who can deliver on the central demands of the campaign -- use good judgment, deliver a passable speech, survive tough interviews, and stay on message. Of course, he or she must survive the standard vetting benchmarks of tax records, legal nannies and a scandal-free life. After that, it is the knowledge that the certainty of a personal connection will protect the candidate from the mistake of learning something he didn't know when it's too late to make a change.
I couldn’t ask for a better launching pad for this blog on the Vice Presidency.

My interest is where the VP fits into the policy process, and Kachigian’s case for McCain to pick a friend is a very good one from that perspective. Presidents are either experienced Washington figures, or they are not. From Carter on, we have lived in an era of “outsider” Presidents (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43) each of whom made it a point to select an experienced “insider” Vice President. This has coincided with the growth in responsibility and influence of the VP.

The era prior to Carter was dominated by “insider” presidents and powerless Vice Presidents (think Johnson, Humphrey, and Agnew.) Reportedly, JFK wanted LBJ in the loop – but his staff didn’t care for Johnson. This illustrated a principle described by Paul Light in his Vice Presidential Power:
…the tendency of insider Presidents to discount vice-presidential advice. Neither President viewed his Vice-President as a source of information or expertise. Nor did the presidential staffs seem particularly interested in the Vice-President’s participation. Since insider Presidents generally bring insider staffs, goal compatibility with the Vice-President is frequently low.
This maxim applied to the most recent insider Presidency – Bush 41. Although he met frequently with Quayle, it isn’t apparent that Bush 41 (as experienced a DC insider as they come) leaned on him for counsel. Additionally, according to an article by Paul Kengor in Wreath Layer or Policy Player? The Vice President’s Role in Foreign Policy Bush’s staff – particularly Jim Baker – didn’t care much for Quayle or want to see him take an active role.

In contrast, the effective Vice Presidents have allies on the President’s staff. Mondale was close to the Deputy National Security Advisor David Aaron. Under Reagan, Bush 41 ally Jim Baker was the White House Chief of Staff.

McCain is a definite insider, with an insider staff. So if he picks some governor (Pawlenty, Romney etc.) they won’t have much of a personal relationship and the staff will freeze them out. If it is an individual with whom McCain has a well-established and strong relationship – someone McCain would be inclined to consult under any circumstances – then it will be harder to freeze them out.

Importance of being inside the Loop

Who cares?

When FDR died and Harry Truman took office, Truman was unaware of the Manhattan Project (constructing the world’s first atomic bomb) or the status of negotiations with Stalin over the shape of post-war Europe. He was not in the loop.

Eight of the forty-three presidents have left office suddenly (seven deaths and one resignation) and there have been a number of close calls. The possibility that this will occur again – and possible in the midst of a crisis – is real. An uninformed Vice President who was not “in the loop” could make a bad situation worse.

Fairly or unfairly, the “emergency transition” issue seems particularly important for the 72-year-old Senator McCain. An outsider VP will remain an outsider in a McCain administration, and if the worst should happen, he would probably not get the useful national security experience he would need to be effective.

So, from a national security process perspective, the United States would be well served if McCain selected a close friend and ally.