Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Speculation Alert: Romney's Veepstakes

As obsessed as I am about the VP's relative increase in influence, the truth is a huge percentage of VP stories are reporters trying to fill space and - if they are lucky - make a story where there wasn't one. Now CNN pitches New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte as a possible - Romney states she is one of 15 possibles.

While Romney is the putative front-runner and there is still plenty of smart money on him, he hasn't actually won anything yet.

Let's hit some overall trends. Ayotte is from Romney's region. Geographic balance isn't an absolute necessity (see Clinton-Gore, two southerners) but New England is not an electoral power-house. Ayotte was elected in 2010 - she is probably a lot more seasoned then Palin, but she is still relatively inexperienced. Although Romney was born into a political family, he hasn't spent any time in DC - so he is still an outsider. Plus he needs someone with rock-solid conservative credentials to shore up party suspicions that he is really a moderate.

So he needs a southern conservative with DC experience. There are any number of possibilities to fit that bill - Jon Kyl and Lamar Alexander leap to mind. (Marco Rubio does not.)

One interesting character who fits it perfectly is actually Newt Gingrich - but something tells me that he isn't terribly interested in the number two slot. Gingrich is a brilliant idea machine, but even if he were interested, would number two be a good fit?

Speaking of which, I answered the Politico Arena question of the day:
Will immigration stance hurt or help Newt Gingrich?

It is likely that Newt's stance on immigration will hurt him with "the base." Fortunately for him his major rival has a number of weaknesses with the base as well. Part of the problem is that this base has calcified into a set of impossibly rigid positions that no candidate can realistically satisfy.

However, this position will serve Newt well if he can make it to the general election as it highlights him as an independent thinker and it reflects a more humane side to a Republican Party that is looking increasingly mean-spirited.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Why Republicans love Coolidge

An article in Slate explores the Republican fascination with Calvin Coolidge. The author discusses how Reagan's biggest moves seemed to be ripped from Silent Cal's play book. But the veneration of Coolidge reflects something more profound then policy preferences.

Renown Presidential Scholar Richard Neustadt wrote that the President has been transformed from a leader to a clerk. Neustadt wrote in 1959:
A striking feature of our recent past has been the transformation into routine practice of the actions we once treated as exceptional. A President may retain liberty, in Woodrow Wilson's phrase, "to be as big a man as he can." But nowadays he cannot be as small as he might like....

In instance after instance the exception behavior of our earlier "strong" Presidents has now been set by the statute as a regular requirement. Theodore Roosevelt once assumed the steward's role in the emergency created by the great coal strike of 1902; the Railway Labor Act and the Taft-Hartley Act now make such interventions mandatory upon Presidents. The other Roosevelt once asserted personal responsibility for gauging and for guiding the American economy; the Employment Act binds his successors to that task. Wilson and FDR became chief spokesmen, leading actors, on a world stage at the heights of war; now UN membership, far-flung alliances, prescribe that role continuously in times termed "peace." ...And what has escaped statutory recognition has mostly been accreted into presidential common law, confirmed by custom, no less binding; the fireside chat and the press conference, for example, or the personally presented legislative programs, or personal campaigning in congressional elections.

In form all Presidents are leaders nowadays. In fact this guarantees no more than that they will be clerks. Everybody now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything. Laws and customs now reflect widespread acceptance of him as the great initiator... A President today is an invaluable clerk. His services are in demand all over Washington....
Critical to this transformation was FDR and the massive expansion of the Federal government in response to the Great Depression and World War II. Coolidge (Republicans would prefer not to mention Hoover) was the last leader President and part of being a leader was the option not to take action. Consider a few choice Coolidge statements:
Four-fifths of all our troubles would disappear, if we would only sit down and keep still.

If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.

Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business.

They criticize me for harping on the obvious; if all the folks in the United States would do the few simple things they know they ought to do, most of our big problems would take care of themselves.

In venerating Coolidge, more than merely approving cutting taxes and other pro-business policies the Republicans are harking back to an era where little was expected of the President, the government's role was not all pervasive, but at the same time when action was needed it was decisive.

Also, while Coolidge was seen as pro-business, this attitude was heavily tempered by a belief in morality:

Industry, thrift and self-control are not sought because they create wealth, but because they create character.

It is only when men begin to worship that they begin to grow.

No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.

Prosperity is only an instrument to be used, not a deity to be worshipped.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In Politico's Arena on the Perry Meltdown

This morning, the Politico Arena question of the day was Can Rick Perry recover?

My answer, in a word: No! The full answer is below:
Perry's campaign was always a long-shot because, quite frankly, Texas has had its turn in the White House. Voters are inclined to give other states a chance.

It is often remarked that the primary system the United States has is no way to pick a president. It is unclear if this system shows who is fit to be president, but it is safe to say that at least it shows us who is not up to the job.

Perry, unable to recite his own talking points, has shown the voters which category he best fits.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Confluence of Veeps - Past & Present

In 1975, in the wake of Watergate, Congress began investigating the CIA. President Ford, a former VP replaced the CIA director with George H.W. Bush (a future VP.) Also, to head off the congressional investigations he assigned his own VP, Nelson Rockefeller, to head a committee. Reportedly the White House chief of staff orchestrated these moves. In the case of Rockefeller he was trying to weigh Rocky down with committee work so he couldn't get anything done as the chair of the Domestic Policy Council. Rumsfeld had also brough Bush into the CIA to hurt his future political career - Rumsfeld harbored presidential ambitions of his own. Decades later Rumsfeld's machinations were remembered and his appointment to Defense was not a popular move amongst the Bushies.

But Rumsfeld had an important ally in the Bush 43 administration. His old deputy and successor at the Ford White House, future VP Dick Cheney.

I can think of several points where two past, future & present VPs worked together (any where the President had been VP for starters) but FOUR on one particular issue must be some sort of record.

Friday, November 4, 2011

VP Garret Hobart - hot or not?

In my endless quest for vice presidential influence it is always a pleasure to learn something new and non-trivial!

Garrett Hobart, McKinley’s first vice president, mattered – his home (VPs had to arrange their own lodging until 1975) was called the “Little Cream White House” (which had once been McClellan’s HQ) and he was often referred to as “Assistant President.”

One newspaperman wrote:
For the first time in my recollection, and the last for that matter, the Vice President was recognized as somebody, as a part of the Administration, as a part of the body over which he presided.
Hobart had been the speaker of the New Jersey House, President of the New Jersey Senate, and was a wealthy attorney for the railroads. He was not McKinley’s choice for VP, but the Republican party needed New Jersey and he fit the bill (although he was caught between his desire to enjoy a private life and his ambition and sense of duty.)

What is fascinating (to me at least) are the sources of Hobart’s unique influence. He was by all accounts an engaging individual who gave prudent advice. His wife looked after McKinley’s wife, who was ill and found her duties has First Lady onerous. The Hobarts also entertained Washington, sparing the McKinley's that duty. Hobart also helped McKinley manage his investments. Was this personal connection sufficient to allow McKinley to break a decades-old institution of ignoring the VP? Does it also matter that Hobart, having never held national office, was not a political threat?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Simple Idea for Background Reading

I wandered by the UMD library today and picked up The American Presidency: An Analytical Approach, by UMD prof Irwin Morris (who I don't know.)

Writing about the VP, I need a decent foundation on the study of the president and the presidency. There are endless volumes devoted to the topic. But Morris' book, which is designed as a good undergrad textbook, provides a strong overview of theories and the state of the field.

For background reading, an up to date textbook is a good idea - I wish I had thought of it a few years ago - would have saved me a lot of time trolling around in back issues of Presidential Studies Quarterly.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Implications of VPs as a punchline

I like the funnies, and Frazz is a good one. But I was a little bummed to see them go for the easy laugh here. Sure memorizing vice presidents is pointless, but strictly speaking so is memorizing presidents, state capitols, mythological deities. Multiplication tables and poetry may, in fairness, make some sense. But on the off-chance one finds themselves in a profession that requires knowledge of the 50 state capitols (or the VPs like yours truly) pick it up in on-the-job-training.

My different selves are caught on this. The academic in me wants to right the wrong of VP inconsequence mostly to expand my own academic micro-niche. But the small government conservative says, it is a good thing that government officials are not taken too seriously - government should matter less, not more. But the policywonk in me has a deep respect for people who, as Teddy Roosevelt says "is in the arena." Full quote is here:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Response to WaPo on VP Selection

A few weeks ago The Washington Post Outlook section ran a lengthy article arguing that party conventions should select the vice president, rather then the presidential nominee. The key was that the office was too important to leave to presidential whim and the convention delegates would select stronger candidates more fit for the presidency.

I dashed off a letter to the editor disagreeing, but it was not printed. So, here goes:
Mr. Leahy's recent Outlook feature argued that party conventions should select the vice president. This idea appeals to political journalists because it would make conventions interesting. But it would not result in better vice presidents. The conventions selected some vice presidents of great ability such as Teddy Roosevelt, but also many non-entities and a few scoundrels (consider Aaron Burr or Schuyler Colfax.)

More importantly, the era of party selected vice presidents was characterized by poor relationships between the two nationally elected officials. Coolidge's Vice President Charles Dawes’ refusal to attend cabinet meetings illuminates this situation. Dawes (an outstanding figure who won the Nobel Peace Prize, was a WWI hero, and popular composer - but an utter failure as vice president), did not want to set a precedent of vice presidential attendance because, he wrote, the relationship between a President and his advisors “…is a confidential one, and the selection of a confidant belongs to him who would be injured by the abuse of confidence-however unintentional. Suppose, in the future, some President, with this precedent fixed, must face the alternative of inviting a loquacious publicity seeker into his private councils, or affronting him in the public eye by denying him what has come to be considered as his right-how embarrassing it would be!”

Presidents should continue to choose their running mates because a President that does not have complete confidence in the
vice president’s discretion and loyalty will exclude the vice president from the decision-making process. In the modern complex world the United States cannot afford an ill-informed vice president ascending to the nation’s highest office.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

VeepStakes '12a - Mannes in Politico: Thumbs Down for Marco Rubio

Although the GOP doesn't have a nominee yet, the 2012 veepstakes have begun. Politico's Arena asks if Marco Rubio is a viable VP candidate. The short answer is NO, the longer answer is:
Marco Rubio is not VP material yet and has probably missed his moment to be considered presidential material. Over the past 35 years Americans have preferred outsider, people with minimal Washington experience to be president (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama.) These outsider candidates (including the one losing outsider - Dukakis) have picked experienced D.C.-insiders, often to explicitly balance their own lack of experience.

With the exception of Gingrich and Ron Paul, all of the current Republican candidates are outsiders who would probably select an experienced D.C.-hand as their running mate. Rubio, with less then a year in the Senate is hardly experienced.

Young, telegenic and charming Rubio might have had a chance for the presidency. A few years in the Senate doesn't eliminate the "outsider" label. Obama did not complete his term in the Senate before becoming president. But it may take years for the current controversy \around Rubio to fade in which case he will no longer be an outsider. But, like Biden who wrecked a presidential run with a minor controversy decades ago - Rubio could become a respected insider and become VP material around 2028.
THe Washington Post also takes a skeptical look at Rubio, noting that as a Cuban-American he does not resonate with the vast majority of Latino voters. Probably true, but I take a structural look. While candidates certainly choose based on politics, outsider candidates have had a strong record of picking experienced "presidential" running mates.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Cheney's Legacy

Yesterday morning (while sitting at LAX waiting for a flight) I posted in Politico's Arena on the question: Will memoir improve Dick Cheney's image?

I haven't seen the memoir yet, just the excerpts discussed in The New York Times, but that doesn't stop a pundit for punditing...

Seriously, as a student of the vice presidency, I had to jump on this one. But, rather then comment on the specifics, I tried to place the memoir in historical perspective and relate it to the evolution of the office. My response was:
It is difficult to imagine Cheney's memoirs changing many minds in the short-term. He is a polarizing figure who is loved (occasionally) and hated (quite often.) In the long-run it is difficult to say what his legacy will be. Hopefully, the seeds of a new Middle East are emerging - but the region has an infinite ability to disappoint.

A fascinating aspect to this is the relevance of the vice presidential memoir. Long considered historical footnotes, vice presidential memoirs were minor niche publications. Calvin Coolidge's VP Charles Dawes kept a diary which is available online. Dawes was, prior to the vice presidency, an enormously accomplished man (Nobel laureate, best-selling song-writer, WWI general, and founder of the Budget Office). His memoirs only confirm the office as a constitutional appendix (Arthur Schlesinger's term.)

Nixon's memoir of his vice presidency, Six Crises, kept him in the public eye and helped propel him to the presidency. Still, the attention paid to Cheney's memoirs shows how the office has emerged as a major power center within administrations.

Additionally, since obtaining influence (in the Carter-Mondale administration) vice presidents have been very cautious about getting involved in the public aspects of policy fights. Cheney broke from this tradition as well and his writing a score-settling memoir - while understandable - indicates the vice presidency is evolving into just another presidential advisor.
Some additional notes, the figure of Charles Dawes is fascinating. His accomplishments were legion and his public service continued after the vice presidency. His diary of that period, perhaps the least accomplished in his incredible life emphasizes what a backwater the vice presidency was.

Part of this was self-inflicted, Dawes feuded with Coolidge. He refused to attend cabinet meetings and mismanaged the Presidents affairs at the Senate). He also attempted to actually run the Senate, and lectured Senators on the need to reform antiquated procedures. Students of Senate history will not be surprised to learn that this went poorly.
Still, Dawes was one of the most active, well-known, and popular vice presidents until recently. He was an active campaigner for Coolidge in 1924.

Dawes had some similarities to Cheney. He made a fortune in business (although Dawes did this before his public service) and like Cheney had held several key executive positions. Unlike Cheney, Dawes' first elected office was the vice presidency, whereas Cheney served in the House. But, unlike Cheney, Dawes eschewed any executive responsibility as VP. His refusal to attend cabinet meetings is particularly interesting. Coolidge had attended Harding cabinet meetings as VP and this was considered an enormous advancement in the vice president's status. But Dawes told Coolidge that he was happy to give the president advice and would personally like to attend the meetings, but felt it was a dangerous precedent. The cabinet consisted of the President's confidants, and it was possible that a future vice president who was not loyal to the president would betray this confidence.

It was also Dawes who, as Budget chief called the cabinet the president's natural enemy, because each department head was effectively a vice president of spending.

Much to think about there.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

VP Brainstorms

This is what I've been doing today.

I don't know if it gets me any closer to my proposal, but I like using different colored markers.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Saturday, June 25, 2011

NY Times reports Biden wins Iraq

The New York Times reports that the drawdown in Afghanistan shows Biden's increased influence in the White House, it also mentions that Biden is a fierce advocate for the President's priorities (as though the VP has any choice).

Biden's influence is not news, there were some stronger bits of evidence, for example the Vice President's schedule which in a typical week shows numerous high-level meetings both with the President and key officials or, perhaps most significantly, the West Wing floor plan.

I still think what is striking about the policy process around Afghanistan is the way Biden played a public "devil's advocate" role when the traditional VP role has been to exercise influence quietly.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gore: Another Edition of VP vs ex-VP

Answering the Politico Arenaquestion Does Al Gore have a legitimate gripe with Obama? I wrote:
Al Gore is completely right and completely wrong at the same time. He is right that environmental issues have taken a back seat in the Obama administration. With multiple shooting wars, an economy in a continuing state of free-fall, and a hostile House little wonder that Obama is not devoting his time to the issue.

Ironically, Gore was an extremely influential VP in his day. His personal relationship with President Clinton was critical, but so was Gore's knowing which battles to fight. In the Clinton administration economic issues were front and center, everything else was secondary. As VP Gore did not push environmental issues when the president wasn't interested. As an elder statesman Gore is not constrained by political realities.

VP influence has relied on making sure there was limited public space between the views of our government's two principles. The VP has no bureaucratic power base of his own and Presidents don't need freelancers in the White House. But as an ex-VP, the only influence comes from reaching out to the public. One thing that is fascinating as that anyone cares what an ex-VP says. Throttlebottom would be amazed.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Agnew Reconsidered?

Spiro Agnew is the epitome of the inconsequential VP, who systematically blew whatever opportunities he had to influence policy. Nixon, by some accounts couldn't stand his mere presence. But I am reading Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary - which is really a fun, amusing read. Unsurprising, since Moynihan was a fun, amusing politician.

Moynihan had worked in the Nixon White House, sort of a house intellectual who had seen the collapse of the New Deal Democrats, and had found an intellectual refuge amongst the Republicans. He had some interesting things to say to and about Agnew. He deplored Agnew's aggressive, inflammatory rhetoric - but he seemed to have a certain respect for the man. In this letter to Agnew he wrote:
I have told a dozen colleagues here at Harvard that as a judge of political horseflesh I do not know your equal in American politics today, which is not to say I agree with you about many things, but simply that your judgment about who to have to lunch to talk about the world is in my view pretty damn good. But there are not half a dozen other Republicns who are in any way so disposed and so equipped. You are alone. You have no troops. No one carries on your argument, no one elaborates it, no one initiates comparable and parallel arguments. No journal of any intellectual status is open to your point of view....

If you were to ask my advice it would be this. Cease attacking. Begin talking about the complex problems we must now face... You really can help in this, and I know you would want to do so.
Perhaps just a bit of flattery as Moyhnihan tries to persuade Agnew to tone down his rhetoric? Probably - almost certainly. But now look at this (very lengthy) memo to Ehrichman and Haldeman trying to get the White House to develop a conservative intellectual approach to governance:
....Here permit me a sympathetic word about the Vice President. He alone of administrative spokesmen has sought to take up some of the intellectual issues of the time and to argue the conservative case. But it has been a disaster for the President. Many things the Vice President says are true, at least I would think so. But there does not now exist a spectrum of opinion in which his views are seen to be located in a particular point, a bit to the left of this reasonable person, a bit to the left of that one. Opinion is so concentrated on the liberal left that Agnew's mildly conservative positions are easily portrayed as the voice of the Radical Right. The Vice President has greatly contributed to this by attacking individuals by name. It might be argued that some had it coming to them...but the main point is that the attacks enabled the opposition to the administration to ignore anything of substance he said, and to depict even his most reasoned statements as the frenzied precursors of Fascist Repression....

The Vice President has assembled an advisory group of writers and professors. I have a rough idea of the panel and I would not hesitate to state that for sheer intellectual distinction is head an shoulders above anything any Democratic candidate for President is likely to assemble for similar purposes....
So I am pretty sure that 90% of what Moynihan is writing is an attempt to get Agnew's famously divisive rhetoric toned down. That he throws a fair amount of flattery into the mix is no surprise in the realm of court politics. Moynihan was on to something here. He saw the intellectual collapse of the New Dealers and recognized that a conservative intellectual cadre was needed for the Republicans to displace the Democrats. (This happened, not so much later.) He also recognized that a political spokesman who could articulate complex ideas in simple, popular terms, was needed. (This also happened.) With a bit of seasoning, could Agnew have done it? Was Moynihan trying to both quiet the rhetoric but also initiate a program to "train" Agnew?

Agnew had only been governor of Maryland for two years when Nixon plucked him from relative obscurity and nominated him to the vice presidency. Had he served a bit longer in office, perhaps he would have had a better sense of how to conduct himself. Or, perhaps, Agnew was doing exactly what Nixon wanted as a lightning - that Nixon had no time or inclination for a conservative intellectual project. (He certainly had the brains - Alan Greenspan says Nixon and Clinton were the two smartest presidents he worked with.)

Tough to know - of course Agnew would have been a flawed vessel for any such ambition. He was, as Jimmy Breslin stated, "A magnificent thief," who had payments delivered to the Old Executive Office Building.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Essence of DSK: Do Leaders Matter?

Following the DSK imbroglio, one related story is that during a period of international financial crises the IMF (a critical institution) is leaderless. Of course, they have a deep bench of technocrats to make the trains run on time. On the other hand the present multiple financial meltdowns may be so severe and fundamental that nothing the IMF does would really make a difference – there are grand historical forces at work.

I mention this because a fundamental tenet of bureaucratic politics is that individuals and their preferences matter. If there is a single aspect to that perspective rooted in data rather then anecdote it is the question of “who is in the room.” Does it matter that the IMF doesn’t have a person of top rank to sit in on meetings. There is, of course, a number two but will DSK’s top office effectively respond to the number two’s leadership style?

This could be boiled down to the perspectives offered in the poli-sci classic Essence of Decision.

Model 1 (Rational Actor) vs. Model 2 (Organizational Behavior): Does the IMF matter or are events being shaped by deeper forces?

Model 2 (Organizational Behavior) vs. Model 3 (Governmental Politics): Will the IMF pretty much do its thing regardless of its leadership, or does DSK’s personal influence matter?

Really, my whole point here is best summed up by a far wiser Frenchman then DSK. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:
I have come across men of letters who have written history without taking part in public affairs, and politicians who have concerned themselves with producing events without thinking about them. I have observed that the first are always inclined to find general causes whereas the second, living in the midst of disconnected daily facts, are prone to imagine that everything is attributable to particular incidents, and that the wires they pull are the same as those that move the world. It is to be presumed that both are equally deceived.
Sidenote, DSK's behavior is one good argument for the VP - someone needs to be available to step into the breach when less appealing aspects of human nature cause top leaders to be unable to attend to their duties.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Trouble with Czars

In The Wall Street Journal today former Secretary of State, Treasury, Labor (and OMB chief) George Shultz decries the growth of White House staff at the expense of the cabinet.
The practice of appointing White House "czars" to rule over various issues or regions is not a new invention. But centralized management by the White House staff has been greatly increased in recent years.

Beyond constitutional questions, such White House advisers, counselors, staffers and czars are not accountable. They cannot be called to testify under oath, and when Congress asks them to come, they typically plead executive privilege.

The consequences, apart from the matter of legitimate governance, are all too often bad for the formation and execution of policy. The departments, not the White House, have the capacity to carry out policies and they are full of people, whether political appointees or career governmental employees, who have vast experience and much to contribute to the making of ­policy. When White House staffers try to formulate or execute policy, they can easily get off track in a way that would not happen in a regular department.

As secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, I experienced this with great pain when White House people developed and ran an off-the-books program of arms sales to Iran. It erupted in the Iran-Contra scandal involving the unconstitutional transfer of funds not appropriated by Congress to the Contras, and with close to devastating consequences for the president.

Iran-Contra is a dramatic example, but the more general problem is the inability to take full advantage of available skills and expertise in policy making, and the difficulty in carrying out the functions of government nationally and internationally.
Shultz sees the impossible confirmation process as a primary culprit in this emphasis on White House-based decision-making. The inability to fill critical sub-cabinet ranks quickly makes it impossible for the president to get a firm rein on the bureaucracy. My advisor, Mac Destler, in his Presidents, Bureaucracies, and Foreign Policy discusses the President's need to create centers of strength at various levels throughout the bureaucracy. It is also fair to say that the record of White House czars is not a strong one.

There is other literature that suggests that there are regular patterns to Presidential centralization and dispersion of power. On key issues, the President puts the issue under the White House rubric until he has built the bureaucratic network he needs to further the issue. There is also the issue of scale. Presidents now appoint thousands when they take office. It isn't that these appointees are disloyal, but they probably don't know what the President wants and thus are liable to capture.

None of this is to say that Shultz's argument for easing the appointment process is not a good one - it is! His own record of success as a bureaucratic infighter is impressive (I hope he'll let me interview him when I get to that stage...)

One interesting note to the VP obsessed is that back in the mid-80s when the Reagan Administration couldn't figure out how to manage international terrorism Shultz apparently proposed VP Bush to head a Terrorism Task Force (I wrote a paper on it). Terrorism is THE inter-agency problem and a White House coordination effort was the only way to manage the process. But of course the VP is not a staffer, he (and one day she) is very much a public figure that is ultimately accountable.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Joe's Got no Action

The swirl of world events is incredible. Throughout the Obama administration, VP Biden has been in the center of national security decision-making. He liaised with leaders in Iraq and Egypt at critical junctures. He delivered speeches in Moscow, Beirut and elsewhere. So where is he now?

No court politics here, a review of the Vice President's schedule shows he is in regular meetings with the President and key national security figures - Combatant Commanders, SecDef, and this morning he hosted a meeting with the Secretary of State. But Biden is not taking a public role in explaining administration policy. Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates are, why not?

The VP has NO formal powers (unless specifically delegated by the President.) In upper levels of government, according to the classic Bureaucratic Policies and Foreign Policies a key question is "who has the action?" That is which official in which agency can actually sign off on an initiative. The VP doesn't have it. SecDef and SecState have a formal role in war-fighting and diplomacy. Having the VP out front in place of the President is useful in many situations, but not when forces are actually deployed. It would be Constitutionally and politically problematic to have Biden take a leading role.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Moe on the VP: Chemistry in the West Wing

Richard Moe, who had been Vice President Mondale's chief of staff, had an article in the Huffington Post about the rise of the modern vice presidency. A nice, brief overview from someone who actually knows the topic pretty well. Here is an excerpt:
Importantly, Biden gives every indication of being beyond personal ambition and solely dedicated instead to the president's agenda. Biden's predecessor, Dick Cheney, was beyond electoral ambition but not beyond personal ambition; he established a quasi-independent power center in the vice president's office that had an ideological agenda often at odds with the president's. There has not been a hint of self-promotion or free-lancing on Biden's part. He clearly understands that a vice president's influence does not depend on his visibility; just the opposite. It's no easy thing for a senator of 36 years who prizes his independence and prominence to give it all up for an office, however important, that is totally dependent on one person's discretion to delegate -- or withhold -- power. The trade-off, of course, has been the opportunity to affect policy and events in a way he never could otherwise.

Biden got off to a bit of a rocky start two years ago, but the verbal gaffes of that period have largely disappeared and the penchant for senatorial volubility has been restrained. Although they have very different life stories and personalities, he and the president have obviously developed a good personal chemistry and thus a good working relationship. It's a relationship that depends entirely on mutual trust and in the end both principals are the beneficiaries. But the country is the real beneficiary because it has a vice president whose office and abilities are being maximized for the public good, and because he will have the experience, information and skills to assume the presidency if, God forbid, he has to. Those are the two main criteria for a successful vice president in the modern era, and Biden meets them both. Thirty years ago I thought Mondale did too, but with Obama's help Biden has taken the office several levels beyond. If they keep it up, Joe Biden is on track to become the most consequential vice president in American history.
The line that caught my attention was that Obama and Biden have "good chemistry." What does that mean exactly, not simply that they like each other, although that is important. But politicians tend to be pretty likable, it is a basic characteristic of the profession. Politicians who are described as lacking charisma are still usually at least somewhat likable in person. I remember years ago at Fenway Park my friends were razzing a bullpen denizen. One of them, who is now a successful sportscaster observed, "You know, if he pitched for our college team we'd win a lot more games."

My point is that likability isn't the issue, the personal chemistry is much more than that. Nelson Rockefeller was immensely charming and remained friendly with Ford throughout the administration, yet he had limited influence. Distilling the elements of this chemistry is at the core of my thesis.

A few initial thoughts - first the VP has to actively seek to meet the President's needs. As Neustadt observed, the President as clerk has infinite demands on his time and energy. He does not need someone else giving him something to do. At the same time, the vice president is uniquely positioned to take things off the President's plate. The much derided "funeral duty" is actually an important one. The United States needs to send an appropriate representative, but flying around the world is is a huge drain on the president's time and energy. The same goes for rallying the base. With the President's confidence, these duties can be extended. As Stephen Hess wrote in a memo to Carter about expanding the VP's role:
...resist the temptation to give the vice president any assignments that the president would not assume himself if he had the time.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Rise of the Bidenites

A central component of vice presidential influence is allies on the President's staff. Paul Light's most excellent Vice-Presidential Power: Advice and Influence in the White House describes the importance of acquiring allies on the President's staff and of building warm relations between the vice president and president's staff. Mondale excelled at building alliances and placing allies in key positions. Also, because the Carter team was not familiar with the ways of Washington so that Mondale staffers had unprecedented opportunities to fill these gaps.

This has evolved since. While Bush and his team were somewhat suspected by the Reaganites, Bush worked hard to remove this image and - particularly significantly - his close friend Jim Baker was Reagan's chief of staff during the first term. Since Bush had his own team of experienced staffers, Quayle was challenged in building alliances and placing allies. Under Gore, the staffs had very close relationships and Gore was - by all accounts - a key player in the administration. Cheney's record in this regard may not have been as strong as is generally believed. The Bush staff was deeply loyal to Bush and had its suspicions of Cheney and his staffers. Formally, many Cheney staffers also held formal titles on the White House staff - a new development. Titles are important, but not everything. Probably the most important asset of Cheney's influence was (like Mondale's) a sense of what to do and how to do it.

Wall of Biden

In evaluating palace politics, it is important to look at the floorplan.

According to the Washington Post profile National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is very close to Biden. He advised Biden during the Robert Bork confirmation hearings in 1987 and during Biden's 1988 presidential bid. His brother is also a long-time Biden advisor and his wife is chief of staff to Jill Biden.

The new chief of staff, Bill Daley, spent countless hours on the road with Biden during his 1988 presidential campaign.

In effect, that entire wall of the West Wing is occupied by Bidenistas.

Plus, the new press secretary, Jay Carney, had been Biden's press secretary. Off-hand I cannot think of a vice presidential staffer being promoted to the equivalent position on the president's staff. More than half of the West Wing's office space is filled with individuals with close links to Biden. That is unprecedented vice presidential influence!

Friday, January 21, 2011

VP as Presidential Peer?

Sometime ago I read Political Animal a fictionalized version of the Chuck Schumer - Alfonse D’Amato Senate race. The main character was a speechwriter and learned that his candidate (the novelized version of Schumer) knew about someone who'd been wrongly convicted for killing a police officer. Even though the campaign opposed it, the main character issued a press release announcing the candidate’s support for a re-investigation. The main character was fired and the candidate, when telling him off, said that he would still convert this to victory but that he was the one who was going to have to attend police benefit dinners and take the heat for this.

Reportedly, Lyndon Johnson once said about the Kennedyite intellectuals, “I wish some of these guys had just once had to run for dog catcher.” Ultimately, politicians have to win elections and do the kinds of things that win elections and take the public heat for their decisions.
A Senator has 99 colleagues who “get” what he or she has to deal with and interacts with them daily. A President has no one. There are long-time friends and advisors but they usually don’t have much direct electoral experience. As close as they may be to the President they are not, as William Kennedy wrote in his novel Roscoe describing the boss of the Albany Democratic machine, “…the main man, the man who forked the lightning, the boss.”

Supposedly, at a lower level, Karl Rove got into trouble on that front. He approached the Republican Congressional leadership as an equal. But in Congress there is a line between members and staff, and Rove was staff.

The Vice President is the one person in the White House who really has comparable experience. They have probably run several major campaigns themselves and went through a national campaign with the President. But unlike the staffers (who certainly share the crazy hours and frustrations) only the candidates have been subject to unbelievable scrutiny where reporters hungry to make a story carefully monitor every word while enduring endless speeches, handshaking, and questions from voters.

Rarely are the White House staffers individuals with national level electoral experience. Howard Baker, Reagan’s last chief of staff and a former Senate Majority Leader, is an exception. But he was pulled in under exceptional circumstances when the Reagan presidency was imploding. The VP is the only person around who might “get” both the substantive and personal aspects of what the President needs to do. In short, are VPs positioned to be a unique type of advisor and sounding board?