NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: Okay, I think we’ll get started. So good afternoon, everyone, and welcome. My name is Melissa Waheibi and I’m the deputy director of the New York Foreign Press Center and the moderator for today’s briefing in our Election 2020 series on understanding the role of the vice president.
Today’s briefer is Joel Goldstein, Professor of Law Emeritus from the St. Louis University School of Law, and author of the book, The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.
During the 20th century, the role of the vice president has evolved into an integral part of a president’s administration. This briefing will cover the modern role of the vice president and the significance of the presidential running mate during the 2020 campaign.
Thank you, Professor Goldstein, for giving us your time today for this briefing, and now for the ground rules. This briefing is on the record, and today’s view is our – is our briefer’s view and not – does not represent the view of the U.S. Government. If you have a question, we’ll go to the – you can go to the participant list and virtually raise your hand. When you are called on, we will unmute you so that you can ask your question. Also, you may type your question into the chat box and I will ask that on your behalf. If you have not done so already, please take the time now to rename your Zoom profile with your full name and the name of your media outlet.
And with that, I will pass it over to Professor Goldstein. Thank you, sir.
MR GOLDSTEIN: Okay. Well, thanks very much, Ms. Waheibi. It’s very good to be with you and to have this chance to talk about the modern role of the vice presidency and the campaign role.
Historically, the vice presidency has been the most disparaged position in the United States. Our very first vice president, John Adams, said that, quote, “my Country has in its Wisdom contrived for me, the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived: […] I can do neither good nor Evil.” Daniel Webster, who was twice our secretary of state and one of our great 19th century statesmen, when he was offered the chance to be the running mate on Zachary Taylor’s ticket in 1848, he declined saying, quote, “I don’t propose to be buried until I’m dead.” And for any of you who have seen the wonderful musical “Hamilton,” you may recall the wonderful scene in it where Eliza Hamilton is imploring her husband, Alexander Hamilton, to spend time in the summer with his family, and she says to him Vice President John Adams spends time in the summer with his family, and Alexander Hamilton replies, “John Adams doesn’t have a real job.”
Well, that’s all changed. The vice presidency in the 20th century has become a very robust and consequential position. As Ms. Waheibi said, it’s really an integral part of the presidency. And so in part, I think what’s interesting about the vice presidency is not – is in part the growth of the office, and I want to speak a bit about that, but it’s also an example of how the American constitutional system can evolve and an office that really, for much of our history, was relatively insignificant can achieve really great consequence and significance.
The Constitution gives the vice president two roles. It says that the vice president is the president of the Senate and that he or she is first in line of presidential succession in case the president dies, resigns, is removed, or in case of a presidential incapacity. But really, ever since the vice presidency of Richard Nixon from 1953 to 1961, vice presidents have spent very little time presiding over the Senate. Vice President Pence has broken 13 tie votes in the Senate, but he, like his recent predecessors, spends very little time presiding over the Senate. And while the successor role is important in a contingent sense, and while nine of our 45 presidents first became president when their predecessor died or in one case resigned, most of the time presidents complete their terms and so the vice president doesn’t – isn’t called upon to exercise that succession function.
But what’s happened is that beginning with the Nixon vice presidency in 1953, when he was President Eisenhower’s vice president, the vice presidency really moved into the Executive Branch given the greater role that the United States was playing in the world and the greater extent to which people looked to the presidency for domestic leadership. The vice president was really pulled into the Executive Branch, and Vice President Nixon began to take on roles for President Eisenhower. He took seven foreign trips; he chaired some domestic commissions; he did a lot of political work as sort of a surrogate in the Republican Party; and he was an administration spokesperson.
Part of the move of the vice presidency into the Executive Branch was really a reflection that in a nuclear age, it was important that the person next in line of succession be knowledgeable. When President Roosevelt had died, nobody had previously told President Truman about the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb, and he wasn’t first told about that until after he became president. And so afterwards, there was a thought that the vice president really needed to be more closely involved.
And so beginning – for the quarter century beginning with the Nixon vice presidency, the vice president really became a part of the Executive Branch, but to a great extent, oftentimes was sort of peripheral to the work of the Executive Branch. The real change took place with the vice presidency of Walter Mondale in 1977. He was President Jimmy Carter’s vice president. And President Carter, for the first time, brought the vice president into the West Wing of the White House, gave him access to all of the president’s meeting, invited the vice president to attend any meeting on the president’s schedule, made sure that the vice president got all of the documents that the president got, included the vice president’s staff on all sorts of White House meetings, and ultimately Vice President Mondale and President Carter conceived of a new role for the vice president of an across-the-board presidential advisor on all matters of policy and politics, diplomatic and domestic personnel, and a troubleshooter on high-level matters that mattered.
Whereas the vice president’s role previously had been to be one heartbeat away in case something happened to the president, beginning with Vice President Mondale, the vice president’s principal role became not to be a presidential successor but to try and help the president succeed in effectively governing the United States of America. And so this role that President Carter and Vice President Mondale created in 1976-77 really was followed by all of the succeeding presidential administrations of both parties.
After President Reagan and Vice President Bush defeated Carter and Mondale in the 1980 election, Mondale and his team spent a lot of time with Vice President Bush and his team sort of coaching them on the role that Mondale had played, and President Reagan and Vice President Bush adopted the same role. Vice President Bush said right on his Inauguration Day that, “I think the Mondale model is a very good one.” And they followed it and then Vice President Bush, when he became president, followed it with Vice President Quayle. Clinton and Gore followed it. George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney; President Obama, Vice President Biden; and I think President Trump and Vice President Pence have largely followed that role of the vice president being an across-the-board advisor and troubleshooter who works closely with the president to try and make – help him govern in an effective way.
Of course, the particular things that vice presidents do depends – varies somewhat depending on the president’s leadership style, the strengths and weaknesses of each vice president, the needs of each administration. But by and large they’ve all followed the same role; they’ve all had – occupied the same physical office; they’ve all had the same basic prerogatives of access to the president; they’ve all served as general across-the-board advisor and troubleshooter.
Pivoting now a bit to the role of vice presidential candidates, of course, this evening Senator Harris will be nominated as the Democratic vice presidential nominee. She will be the third woman to be nominated to run for vice president. She’s the first woman of color to be nominated to run for vice president. And next week we expect that Vice President Pence will be re-nominated to run for a second term with President Trump. He would be the seventh straight time – or second – seventh consecutive time that a sitting vice president has been re-nominated to seek a second term. In the 19th century, vice presidents rarely were re-nominated for a second term, but now they have been and in fact the last time a vice president wasn’t re-nominated to seek a term the president under whom he served was in 1976.
Vice presidential candidates really play an important role in presidential campaigns, which are, of course, an important part of American democratic institutions where we have our quadrennial intense discussion of policy and programs and we take stock of how things are going and whether or not we view it appropriate to have a change or to continue on the present course. Typically there are three overarching events for a vice presidential candidate. One is the vice presidential rollout when the vice presidential nominee is announced. In Senator Harris’s case, it was on August 11th when Vice President Biden announced that she would be his running mate. The second major event is the event that, in her case, will take place tonight: her acceptance speech. And then the third is the vice presidential debate, which will take place on October the 7th in Salt Lake City. Beginning in 1976, vice presidential debates have been a feature of every presidential election except for the election of 1980.
Vice presidential candidates really perform three sort of rhetorical roles, or three ways in which they contribute to the democratic discussion of campaigns. They tend to sound the themes of their ticket and of their campaign. Other than the presidential candidates, vice presidential candidates have really one of the most powerful microphones. And so part of what they do is to really echo the themes of the presidential candidate and the campaign. Secondly, they typically spend a lot of time explaining why the presidential candidate on their ticket is the best person to lead America through the next four years. And then the third characteristic vice presidential role is to attack the opposing ticket and to explain why its performance or its policies would not be in the United States’ best interests.
The vice presidential candidates are important in a short–term sense because they may affect the outcome of the election. Surely, most people are going to vote based upon their choices or their assessment of the – respect of the competing presidential candidates, but the vice presidential candidates, the selection of a vice presidential candidate sends messages about the presidential candidates that shape perceptions of the presidential candidates, their values, their decision-making ability, and it may make a difference at the margins. Since 1960, 15 – six of our 15 elections have been very close presidential elections that were decided at the margins so that while vice presidential candidates are likely to have only a marginal impact on the voting decision, some elections are decided at the margins.
The second really importance of the role of the vice presidential candidates is that one of the two candidates will be the vice president, and that’s become a very significant and consequential position in American life. The third reason why the vice – choice of vice presidential candidates is important has to do with the succession issue. I mentioned earlier that nine of our 45 presidents were vice presidents who succeeded to the presidency.
And then finally, the vice presidency has become the best presidential springboard in American life. Fourteen of our 45 presidents were vice presidents before they became president. In nine instances, as I’ve mentioned, they were vice presidents who succeeded to the presidency. In the 19th century, vice presidents who succeeded were not elected to a term of their own, but in the 20th century, four of the five vice presidents who succeeded at the presidency were elected to their own term. Four sitting vice presidents have been elected president directly and, in addition, three others were almost elected president and narrowly lost. And then Richard Nixon in 1968 as a former vice president was elected president and, of course, that’s the effort that Vice President Biden makes in this year’s election.
So the vice presidency I think really has become important in a number of ways, both in terms of our government and in terms of our electoral process. And I think with that, Ms. Waheibi, I’d be happy to take any questions that people may have.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you for that introduction. All right, everyone, it’s time for the Q&A portion of this briefing. If you do have a question, you can raise your digital hand in the participant list or you may ask it in the chat box and I’ll state that for you on your behalf. So we’ll give it a moment for people to raise their hands, and then I will call on you, and at that point we will unmute you.
All right, our first question if from Alex from Azerbaijan. Please, state your name and organization, and then ask your full question.
QUESTION: All right. Thank you, Melissa. This is Alex Raufoglu from Turan News Agency of Azerbaijan. Professor, apart from the vice president’s constitutional role that you depicted perfectly well, the occupant of the office can only safely take up the activities that the presidents indicate are appropriate, right? Most presidents made little use of their VPs and, as you mentioned Eisenhower, given that Nixon possessed many of the political skills that were lacking in some of his other key advisors. And so that being said, fast–forward to today. How would you characterize the roles, particularly when it comes to foreign policy, that both Senator Harris and VP Pence might be playing during the months or years ahead? I’m asking because we foreign policy writers usually are trying to dive into a candidate’s previous statements on foreign policy, particularly when it comes to our regions or our countries. And some, let’s say, in Azerbaijan, in Turkey, or other countries might be troubled with Senator Harris’s or others’ previous statements. So how serious should we take the statements that they have made in the past? Thank you so much.
MR GOLDSTEIN: Sure. So I think that – I think your premise that the – I would push back a little bit on the – your premise that the vice president can only do what the president asks him or her to do I think is basically right. In other words, that the vice president’s power is derivative, and it depends in large extent on his or her relations with the president, the president’s leadership style, the vice president’s strengths, what particular assignments the president asks the vice president to take on.
Now, the vice president – I think one of the things that has characterized every vice president, beginning with Vice President Mondale, is that, again, using the wonderful phrase from Hamilton, “They’re in the room.” Vice presidents have a lot of access to the president. They have access both during meetings with other top advisors of the president and they have private access to the president so that – I mean, Vice President Biden used this phrase of being the last person in the room. So the vice president has an important opportunity to persuade the president with respect to his or her views on foreign policy, and different vice presidents use that opportunity more or less aggressively.
I would expect that just as Vice President Pence has taken on a substantial amount of diplomatic work and international travel during the last four years, and just as Vice President Biden took on a lot of it during the two terms that he served as Vice President, that either Senator Harris or Vice President Pence would play a very active role in sort of – in traveling overseas and in terms of meeting with representatives of foreign countries in the United States, or in speaking to them remotely. I think that’s become an important role of vice presidents. The world is certainly too – is simply too big for the president or the president and the secretary of state to handle it all, and having an active and engaged and knowledgeable vice president presents the president with an enormous asset that really I think presidents, beginning with President Carter, have used.
I think ultimately, the policy of the United States Government will be the policy that the next president sets and the vice president will be a voice in setting that policy. But ultimately, the president will make those decisions based upon input from the vice president and other advisors, and then the vice president in either case will help the president implement it.
I hope that’s responsive to your question.
QUESTION: Of course. Thank you so much.
MODERATOR: Okay, great. Thank you. The next question will go to Magda from Polish TV. Magda, when you’re finally unmuted you can ask your question, but first, please, state your name and full organization.
QUESTION: Good afternoon. My name is Magda Sakowska. I’m the correspondent to Polish TV Polsat News. Thank you for doing this meeting.
Professor Goldstein, I have a question. Being a woman of color, what does it mean for Senator Kamala Harris for her fight to win the election? She is the first. It’s some unknown area for her; no one was before her.
MR GOLDSTEIN: Yes. I mean, Senator Harris is a trailblazer – I mean, in the sense that she is a first, the first woman of color to ever be nominated for national office. And other than President Obama, we’ve never elected a person of color to national office, we’ve never elected a woman – this is our 59th election and all of the presidents and vice presidents so far have been men. So Senator Harris is very much a trailblazer. I think that one of the things that we’re seeing in American life is that public service is becoming open increasingly to women and more slowly, but I think also is the case, to people of color so that – I mean, for instance, if you look back in 1984 when Walter Mondale chose Representative Ferraro as the first woman to run for national office, at that time there were no Democratic women in the United States Senate, and I believe there were two Republican women in the United States Senate. There was only one woman governor on the Democratic side and she had just been elected. There – very few women had served in a president’s cabinet. Now if you look in the United States Senate, there are I believe 26 women senators and 17 of them on the Democratic side, nine on the Republican side. There are a number of women governors. There were six women who ran for president at this time. So, increasingly, I think public service is being opened to women and to people of color.
If you look at the people who’ve served as secretary of state, really beginning with the second Clinton administration, we’ve had – what – three women and two people of color. So, increasingly, I think public service is becoming open in the highest offices in America to people of color and to women, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t present certain challenges that Senator Harris will face. I hope I’ve answered your question.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Okay, thank you. So the next question I’ll offer it up, sir. It’s from the chat forum. It’s from Zhaoyin Feng from BBC Chinese Service, and the question is about the transition basically: Thank you for the presentation. Could you talk a little bit more about the scenario where the president dies or resigns or is removed from office? What will the transition to the VP look like?
MR GOLDSTEIN: Well, the – typically, the transition – I think in – particularly in modern times when that unfortunate event happens, it’s relatively smooth in the sense that the president and vice president come from the same political party. And really since 1940 presidential candidates have played the dominant role in selecting their running mate. So that has encouraged more personal compatibility and more of a reciprocal relationship between presidents and vice presidents.
So typically nowadays, the vice president is very much involved with the other principal figures in the Executive Branch. It’s not as if he or she is dealing with strangers. In fact, the vice president plays a role in selecting the administration. You may recall that Vice President Pence was named the chair of the transition in 2016 after President Trump’s election. And similarly when President Obama and Vice President Biden were elected, Vice President Biden was at the table with President Obama as he chose all of his cabinet officials and other leading officials. So there tends to have – to be a political compatibility and a personal compatibility that exists between the president and the vice president that smooths things during a transition. That’s not to say that there won’t be changes, and that’s not to say that presidents and vice presidents are mirror images of each other, but generally the transition is relatively smooth. And of course, we haven’t had a transition since – like this since 1974 when President Nixon resigned – that was the only time a president resigned – and was replaced by Vice President Ford, and prior to that when President Kennedy of course was assassinated in 1963.
MODERATOR: Okay, so we have another question from the chat room which I’ll state – it’s from Raj from International Press Syndicate in India: Just as Dick Cheney overshadowed George Bush, Jr. in certain situations, Mr. Goldstein, do you foresee a situation where VP Harris, if elected, could overshadow President Biden? Yes, that’s the question.
MR GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, the – I would use – I think the – well, I would use a different word than “overshadow.” I think that there was a perception sometimes that Vice President Cheney was really running the government. I always thought that while he was very influential, especially during the first presidential term in part because Vice President Cheney had such broad and really almost unprecedented prior experience that he brought to office having been the president’s chief of staff at age 34 and then a leader in the House of Representatives, Secretary of Defense, and so forth, I thought that President Bush really was always the president. And particularly during the second term, I think that while Vice President Cheney had influence, that often times he found himself on the losing end of arguments and that President Bush was very much the President.
I think that it’s really impossible for a vice president to overshadow a president. I mean, if you think about we’re going to have three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate – years ago when I wrote my first book on the vice presidency, and it came out in the early 1980s, I looked at the amount of media coverage that was given to presidential and vice presidential campaigns, I came up with sort of a rough way of measuring it, and I found that roughly that presidential candidates got, by the measure I used, 10 times as much coverage as vice presidential candidates. So I think that whoever is elected president will overshadow the vice president.
I do think, though, that – I think that there is one sort of interesting aspect – or I think your whole question is actually interesting. But I think in one aspect I think the Senator Harris poses a unique situation in that given that in 58 straight elections we’ve elected men president and vice president, in the event that the Biden-Harris ticket were successful, it would be the first time that a woman had ever been elected to national office. And so in that sense, I think the election of the vice president in – assuming that hypothetical would be, in a historical sense, more significant in a way than the election of the president. But otherwise, I would expect that whether the next president is President Trump or Vice President Biden that he will overshadow the vice president.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Pearl from NewsDay, Zimbabwe.
QUESTION: Good afternoon. Thank you very much, Mr. Goldstein. My question to you is: Obviously, historically the U.S. has always had one vice president, but it’s not unheard of around the rest of the globe for authoritarian type countries to have two, even three vice presidents. Zimbabwe is a case in point. All the political parties there have three vice presidents; one – the ruling party has two. So what – what is it about the United States that we are saying one vice president is capable for the job, for this job description, and what lessons could the rest of the world, in particular authoritarian countries, learn from a single vice president being capable of ruling in a democracy? Thank you very much, Mr. Goldstein.
MR GOLDSTEIN: No, thank you for the question. It’s really a wonderful question, even though I think some of the answer is that we started out with one vice president. And there’s a certain path dependency that practice and tradition has its own compelling momentum sometimes. So I think that’s part of the answer, but not the entire answer. Because I think one of the things that’s so interesting about your question is that in the 19 – in the mid-1960s after the assassination of President Kennedy, the Congress proposed and ultimately the states ratified the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides a means of filling a vice presidential vacancy, and provides a means of dealing with presidential inability. And when – one of the proposals that was prominently put forward was that we ought to have two vice presidents.
Senator Kenneth Keating of New York suggested that instead of having one vice president, we ought to have two vice presidents: one who would be sort of a executive vice president, and the other would be a legislative vice president. And one of the people who testified before the Senate against that proposal was actually one of Senator Keating’s constituents, former Vice President Richard Nixon, who then was a – in the mid-1960s was a lawyer in New York. And former Vice President Nixon said that in his experience, looking at other countries in the world, that when you divided the vice presidency, you tended to make it less powerful and less significant, and that one of the things, of course, that he was very proud of was that during his vice presidency the office had really moved to the Executive Branch, had become more significant. And so there was this idea that the vice presidency is improving, it’s growing; let’s not mess with it.
I think – and I think that’s continued. And I think that one of the really intriguing aspects of the development of the vice presidency since Carter/Mondale in the mid-1970s is that the office has grown and it’s occupied this position of sort of an across-the-board advisor to the president, and somebody who can take on high-level assignments for the president. One of Vice President Mondale’s ideas that he pitched to President Carter was he said, I think it’s very important that you have somebody who can look at the whole field the way you do but who isn’t afraid to come in and tell you when he or she thinks that you’re wrong, and who can make sure that you’re seeing a full spectrum of perspectives in making decisions. And that’s a role that I would like to play. And President Carter embraced that.
And I think that one of the things that’s so intriguing is that the presidents and the vice presidents who have followed Carter and Mondale have been very different in terms of their politics, their ideology, their personalities. But by and large they’ve all sort of embraced this idea that having a vice president who is loyal but significant, and who is in the room and who brings a depth and a wealth of knowledge to the table, can enhance their government. And so that whereas previously presidents had viewed vice presidents as rivals, as competitors and sort of kept them at a distance, increasingly they’ve looked to their vice president as – I think going back to Ms. Waheibi’s phrase at the outset – as an integral part of the government, as part of the president’s inner circle. And I think that’s been a very healthy and positive development for our government.
I hope I’ve answered your question.
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you very much, I appreciate it.
MODERATOR: Thank you. So I’m going to take one now again from the chat room. And this one is from Ahmadou from Les Echos out of Senegal. And the question is: Is it important for voters to compare both vice presidents as running mates with – and their backgrounds associated with that?
MR GOLDSTEIN: Sure. I mean, it’s – in the sense that there are lots of things that can go into making a decision. And the vice presidential choice is data about the president’s, or the presidential candidate’s decision-making ability, what he values, what he looks for. There’s – the vice president plays an important role, and there’s the possibility always – one hopes not, but one can’t ignore the possibility of a presidential succession. So it’s part of the decision.
I think by and large most American voters are going to decide based upon – and typically do decide based upon the competing presidential candidates. But the vice presidential candidate can make a difference in terms of how those presidential candidates are perceived. I think where voters are indifferent between the two presidential candidates, where they’re undecided between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidate, the choice of the competing vice presidential candidates may be more important, so that if they think that one is particularly qualified and the other isn’t, it may make a difference. But other than that, I think most people will focus on the presidential choice. But I think the – it’s important to look at the vice presidential choice. And the fact that the vice presidential candidates have a debate I think is a recognition of that. The vice presidential debate really encourages presidential candidates to choose people who are ready for prime time, ready to function on a national stage, and the vice presidential debate, along with these other campaign roles, really puts the vice presidential candidates in a position to help influence the discussion, the deliberation during a campaign in a way that very few other Americans have?
MODERATOR: That’s great, thank you. We have time for one more question. I’ll give it a few seconds, if anyone has any final questions that they would like to submit.
Okay, I have one from the chat box. And this is from Kyodo News: What would you think is Senator Harris’s weaknesses in her bid to become vice president?
MR GOLDSTEIN: Well, I mean, I think that every presidential or vice presidential candidate has strengths and weaknesses. Senator Harris is – I guess, if you were looking for a weakness, it would be that she’s relatively new to national politics. She has been in the United States Senate since 2017. She ran a presidential campaign, but not a successful one. And so I think one might say that those would be weaknesses.
On the other hand, if you compare her to some others, when then-Senator Obama ran for president, he had been in the United States Senate for exactly as long as Senator Harris has been. And where she had been elected twice as attorney general of our largest state, his prior service had been as a state legislator, a state senator in Illinois. So in one sense, you might say that her experience was greater than his.
Most people, I think, think that our greatest president was Abraham Lincoln. He had served one term in the House of Representatives 12 years before he was elected president. So one can – sometimes experience comes in ways that are different than serving in elected office, but I guess that might be what one might look at.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Sir, do you have a couple moments for – we have two more questions. And it’s from —
MR GOLDSTEIN: I’d be happy to.
MODERATOR: Okay, great. These are from journalists who have previously asked a question. We’ll start with Alex and then go to Pearl, and that will conclude it. So Alex, we can begin with you and your question.
QUESTION: Thanks so much, Melissa. Professor, you mentioned the female factor, which is also very interesting to watch because we have another important female voice in the room, and that’s the first lady. So countries such as Azerbaijan, Nicaragua, are famous with appointing their first ladies as VPs. Can you help us square the circles in terms of who should run the show when it comes to female-related issues? And why it is important to have these positions separated? Thank you.
MR GOLDSTEIN: The – have the position of vice president and first lady separate?
QUESTION: That’s correct.
MR GOLDSTEIN: Okay, thank you. Well, I mean, I think the first ladies in the United States – I mean, many of them have been influential. I mean, Eleanor Roosevelt was really President Franklin Roosevelt’s eyes and ears, and she played an important and influential role. I mean, she – I think as first lady, I believe she wrote a newspaper column. The – so – and a number of first ladies have played – I mean, played different roles, but some of them have played very important political roles. Others have focused on particular issues like – I believe that Mrs. Bush was very involved in efforts to promote literacy and so forth.
I think the vice presidency is, of course, an elected position. And so Senator Harris, Vice President Pence are both people who come from a tradition of being elected politicians. They’ve both run for office a number of times. They’ve campaigned for office. They have developed democratic sensibilities in the sense that they participated in the democratic process of feeling obliged to explain and defend their positions to the American people and to participate in a democratic and in a political process. And so I think that is something that’s quite different. The experience of having participated first-hand – I mean, to have had your name on the ballot and to be the person who either wins or loses is unique in – both in terms of the experience and then also the legitimacy.
I mean, in the United States, I think a vice president has a certain political legitimacy that a first lady doesn’t have because, I mean, after all, the first lady, as important as she may be or as a first man may be, and the fact that we may very much like and admire those figures, they’re not the people on the ballot. They’re not the people ultimately who are elected.
QUESTION: Thanks so much.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And we’ll open up the opportunity for Pearl to ask your follow-up question.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. So I want to go back a little bit on the performance of the vice president.
MR GOLDSTEIN: Okay.
QUESTION: So I know that there is an office somewhere and a person designated to sit down and write out a job description, and last night the Biden campaign made it an issue to make leadership the key theme in last night’s DNC convention theme. And I know overall, leadership in the White House has become an issue in this current presidency.
So my question is: To what level in that job description is there a measure of seeing that the president will listen or heed counsel from his vice president? I mean, everybody has a report card, and if you have a job description, that’s what we would measure whether that person is performing their job. So what is there in that job description or what advisors might the vice president have so we know both the VP and the president will listen or heed counsel? Will the president even listen to his vice president? Thank you.
MR GOLDSTEIN: Well, I think it’s – that is really a continuing question in American government, I mean, in the sense that if you go back to the United States involvement in the Vietnam War, there was criticism that certain presidents really weren’t open to contrary advice, and that they were functioning in an echo chamber, and that they weren’t hearing or they weren’t listening fairly to – or they weren’t receptive to voices that weren’t telling them what they wanted to hear.
And of course, different vice presidents and different presidents have different styles, and some presidents are very open and welcoming to – and although none of us like to hear criticism, some presidents at some level have a recognition that it’s healthy to have people who are willing to tell them – to talk truth to power, and historically, others are – have been less so.
I think it’s a question, Lee, that is something that – it’s one of the issues that we ought to think about more, I think, in our campaigns, is that our campaigns oftentimes focus a lot on particular programs. And yet I think that the sort of issue of character, of personality that you identify is one that voters ought to do – ought to focus on more is: Is this somebody who’s – who is receptive to contrary views? Is he or she receptive to criticism? Is he or she receptive to recognizing mistakes and trying different paths? Those are important leadership qualities for people to measure, and so I think that’s something that voters could do a better job of. I think – and while I think that the media does a wonderful job and fulfills a vitally important role in American life, I think that’s something that the press can also focus on and can draw attention to, is to try and tease out some of that information.
Oftentimes it’s very difficult to sort of identify these sort of characteristics in a potential leader, but I think it’s – and it’s – but it’s important information for people to have and it’s important information for people to consider. Is that responsive to what you’re asking?
QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much. I appreciate your explaining that for me.
MODERATOR: And sir, I have one more question and then we’ll conclude the briefing. It’s coming from the chat. I’ll summarize it a bit. Actually, well, depending on the answer we might have a second question. We’ll see.
But the first one comes from Jiji Press, and in summary the questioner says that the relationship between the former secretary of state and former secretary of defense has deteriorated and they resigned their positions because of that relationship with the President, but the current relationship between Vice President Pence and President Trump is doing quite well. Is there – is that because of a personal relationship, or is that a system or a process issue where potentially the Vice President may or may not be able to change positions?
MR GOLDSTEIN: If I follow the question, I think it’s – is probably something of both in the sense that the vice president has a four-year term. The vice president has the same term that the president has, so that both President Trump and Vice President Pence have the identical four-year term that began January 20th, 2017 and ends January 20th, 2021. The secretary of state, secretary of defense, other members of the administration serve at the pleasure of the president so that the formal term is different.
Vice presidents – we’ve only had two vice presidents who have ever resigned. One was Spiro Agnew who resigned as part of a plea deal when – to avoid indictment in 1973, and then the other was John Calhoun who was about to go out of office anyhow, and he resigned as vice president a couple of months early to accept the position as senator of South Carolina. So although it’s been talked about from time to time about vice presidents resigning in protest, historically it hasn’t been something that has happened. Some people thought – encouraged Vice President Humphrey to resign in protest over the – President Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam War, but Vice President Humphrey never did, no indication that he really seriously thought about doing that.
So to some extent it also reflects a difference, I think, in political ambition. I mean, most vice presidents would like at some point in the future to run for president and resigning in protest is not a – typically is not conducive. So I think it’s both related to those sorts of things and it probably reflects the fact that by all appearances, President Trump and Vice President Pence have established a very close and reciprocally friendly relationship, and president – Vice President Pence has been rather effusive in praising President Trump throughout his service, and President Trump has praised Vice President Pence as well. So by all appearances, they’re very friendly towards each other. Did I answer the whole – the question?
QUESTION: Yes, yes, I think so. I did a bit of a summary with that paragraph. This will be the final question. This will conclude our event, and it comes from BBC Chinese Service again. And the question is – it’s: “If you have comments on this, could you speculate on the dynamics of the vice presidential debate?”
MR GOLDSTEIN: Well, it’ll be interesting there. The vice presidential debates are different than presidential debates because during – because during the presidential debates, the focus really is on the two presidential candidates and on the two competing sets of programs and policies that they’re advocating. In vice presidential debates, you don’t expect the discussion to focus primarily on the vice presidential candidates. The vice presidential debates are also mostly about the presidential candidates and the themes of the two parties. So if you find that a vice presidential candidate in the debate is talking too much about himself or herself, it probably means that they’re not following the script that has been spelled out for them, because really what they want to try and do is to be advancing the case for their ticket partner and to be attacking the opposing presidential candidate.
I think the – both Vice President Pence and Senator Harris appear to be very good at political communication. Senator Harris, I think one of the things that really attracted attention to her was the vigorous and effective way that she questioned certain representatives or nominees from the Trump administration. She performed well during the vice – or during the presidential debates, so she’s thought to be an effective debater. Vice President Pence was thought to have done very well during the 2016 vice presidential debate, and of course, before he went into Congress, he had a long history as a political commentator, and so among his skills is in terms of political communication.
So to expect that they would both be good at it, I would think that they would be focusing primarily not so much across the stage, but at the – but on the presidential candidates on the two tickets. In Senator Harris’s case, it’s – it is a little bit more of the introduction of her to the American people, and so perhaps there’ll be a little bit more of that in her case, but I think it should be an interesting debate, as all of them are. Typically, they’re not viewed as much – quite as much as the presidential debates. The one exception to that was the 2008 vice presidential debate between Vice President – or between then-Senator Biden and Governor Palin – was actually – got a higher viewership than the presidential debates that year. But other than that, the presidential debates generally draw a higher viewership than the vice presidential debates.
MODERATOR: Well, that’s been really informative. Thank you. That’s it for our Q&A time. Professor Goldstein, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today. To our participants, the transcript and video will be posted on our website at FPC.state.gov, and if you publish a story and – as a result of this briefing, please send it to us. That address is NYFPC@state.gov.
Well, this concludes today’s event. I wish you all a good afternoon. Thank you.
MR GOLDSTEIN: Great. Thanks. Thanks for having me.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. It’s been great.