The Vice President: Heir Apparent in American Politics

When George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind and Ira and George Gershwin wrote "Of Thee I Sing" in 1931, they created a vice president named Alexander Throttlebottom, whose relationship with government was so tenuous that he saw the White House for the first time on a tour. The term "throttlebottom" thus passed into the language to refer to someone with no competence or apparent purpose.

It turns out, however, that in the second half of the twentieth century the vice-presidential candidate on a successful ticket has virtually assured himself of his party's presidential nomination eight years down the road. This makes the nominations of Dick Cheney and Joseph I. Lieberman of major importance.

Originally, the vice president was the man who finished second in the Electoral College. The formation of parties and the separation of votes for the office of president and vice president in the Electoral College, required by the 12th Amendment, ended that.

Starting in 1808, the secretary of state, from Jefferson's secretary, James Madison, through James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, served as heir apparent in the young republic. But Andrew Jackson's victory over Adams in 1828 and over his own former secretary of state, Henry Clay, in 1832, put an end to that succession. Jackson was blocked in his attempt to make Martin Van Buren, who was his choice to succeed him, secretary of state, so he put him on the ticket as vice president in 1832. Van Buren became the last sitting vice president to be heir apparent or gain a major party presidential nomination until Richard Nixon in 1960.

After the office of vice president had languished for more than a century, World War II brought about an important change. First, Henry A. Wallace, who had run with Roosevelt in 1940 as a symbol of the administration's continuing commitment to the New Deal, was given significant responsibilities as director of the Board of Economic Warfare. He also became a major administration spokesman on other issues. Then, in 1944, an alliance of organization Democrats and conservatives ousted Wallace and replaced him with a regular politician, Harry Truman, whom Roosevelt, as he privately admitted, hardly knew. They did so in part because they feared that Wallace would be Roosevelt's successor and pursue radical policies after the war.

Which leads to Richard Nixon, who found himself on the ticket with Eisenhower in 1952 at the peak of McCarthyism because, as Thomas E. Dewey privately told Ike at the Republican convention, Nixon was a "respectable McCarthy," without McCarthy's personal liabilities, who could win over McCarthy's following. Although he was never part of Eisenhower's inner circle, Nixon became the president's errand boy to the party organization, cheerleading at fund-raisers and in campaigns. By 1960, he had made himself the leading candidate for a continued Cold War presidency, and established the precedent of the vice president as leader of the party organization and heir apparent.

From 1968 on, vice presidential candidates regularly became elected presidents or at least major nominees for presidential nominations, something that had only happened through the death of the president between 1840 and 1960. When Jimmy Carter was defeated in 1980, Vice President Walter Mondale, his heir apparent, won the Democratic nomination in 1984.

Although Vice President George Bush was hardly a hero to Reaganites, he faced no serious opposition for the nomination in 1988. In fact, some suggested that he nominated Dan Quayle, a throwback to the old throttlebottom vice president, in substance if not in formal duties, as a sort of insurance policy. Even the unsuccessful vice presidential candidate Bob Dole, who had run with Gerald Ford in 1976, resurfaced in 1996. And Vice President Al Gore is the Democratic nominee today.

If Cold War continuity in the executive branch helps explain the rise of the vice president as heir apparent (someone qualified to direct foreign policy if the president dies and to continue the basic policies in the next election and administration), why has the office become a direct stepping-stone to the presidency in a post-Cold War America?

The fundamental role of media and money in contemporary presidential politics, with parties serving as huge fund-raising machines, has turned the vice president into the de facto party organization man and fund-raiser, creating a system similar to what prevailed in Mexico for generations. In that long-time one-party system, the president from the ruling party (PRI) held office for one seven-year term and chose his successor as the party's presidential candidate. Today, the successful American presidential candidate, after two four-year terms, in effect chooses his successor as party nominee when he chooses his vice president.

In choosing Dick Cheney, George W. Bush has chosen the probable nominee of his party in 2008 if he wins the election, assuming Cheney maintains good health. Thus, he has handed the future of the presidential Republican party over to a staunch conservative whose votes on abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, gun control and the existence of the Department of Education make Bush's "compassionate conservatism" into very tough love.

Al Gore's nomination of Senator Lieberman, the first Jew ever to receive a major party nomination for vice president, is more complicated. Would a vice president filling a now conventional role as fund-raiser and liaison to the party organization make a Jewish vice president the heir apparent to the Democratic nomination in 2008 after a generation of the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority in politics? That intriguing question aside, Gore has chosen a Senator more conservative than himself, than most Jewish voters, and than the liberal-labor-minority base of the Democratic party.

In the past, political historians spoke of presidential and congressional parties with different constituencies within the major parties. Today we are seeing the development of television parties and the money parties. For the television party the convention and the campaign become a ratings sweeps periods, filled with glamorous infomercials. In the choice of vice presidential nominee, the winning, and wealthy, party leadership perpetuates itself and its real policies into the future.

Major campaign financing reforms, such as strict spending limits, free television time, and the limiting of campaigning to six weeks before primaries or conventions and six weeks before elections would limit the role of money. Then the vice president would not automatically function as heir apparent and de facto party chief, and voters might ultimately have real choices between candidates and parties.

Norman Markowitz is a member of the history faculty at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and a writer for the History News Service.

August, 2000