By Joel K. Goldstein, author of “The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden”
So great is President Donald Trump’s narcissism, and so shallow his appreciation of America’s constitutional system, that even when he’s praising his ultraloyal vice president, Mike Pence, he simply utters some general tributes before focusing on the political benefit he derives from his lieutenant. Such was apparent Sunday when Trump affirmed that Pence would be his running mate in the 2020 race.
The implication that Pence’s greatest contribution is his political utility diminishes Pence and the role of vice president.
Political calculations, of course, influence vice presidential selection and retention decisions. Yet Trump’s spontaneous utterances suggest the excessive weight he assigns to Pence’s popularity with his base, and how little he values the role a strong No. 2 can play in governing and being a successor. The implication that Pence’s greatest contribution is his political utility diminishes Pence and the role of vice president. As does the other vice presidential quality Trump seems to value: Pence’s willingness to play a servile role, one that has led me to dub him the “syncophant-in-chief.”
Pence has taken the course of least resistance to Trump, and that has helped his job security as vice president. But it hasn’t presented him as a plausible president. Despite Trump’s claim Sunday that Pence is loved and respected by “most people,” recent polls contradict Trump’s claim, since substantially more people view him unfavorably than favorably.
In contrast, Joe Biden’s approach as vice president under Barack Obama helps him make a stronger case for being elected to the Oval Office even though his service also exposes him to certain vulnerabilities. Biden performed consequential roles and was loyal as vice president without blindly following his boss. Biden is currently the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination and beats Trump when potential voters are asked to choose between them.
Serving as vice president elevates a public figure and broadens his political network. Indeed, the vice presidency has been the best presidential springboard for the last 60 years. Beginning with Richard M. Nixon in 1960, most vice presidents who subsequently had the opportunity and interest to run for the presidency have either been presidential nominees (Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey, Walter F. Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore) or at least serious presidential contenders. Two (Nixon and Bush) were elected president, while Humphrey and Gore narrowly missed, as did Nixon in his first presidential race.
Of course, vice presidents also face some difficulties. Even those who serve with a popular president as did Biden are held to account for unpopular decisions. In the artificial world of presidential nominating debates, it’s hard for Biden to separate himself from tough decisions Obama made while his Democratic opponents ironically benefit from the fact that they never governed at that level. Yet, if Biden faces occasional challenges in justifying Obama’s difficult choices, imagine Pence’s fate in 2024 if called upon to defend Trump.
To Biden’s great credit, he has escaped a second problem of most vice presidents seeking to move up. After four or eight years serving as a second, many vice presidents have difficulty emerging from the president’s shadow. Still, Biden managed to be loyal to Obama without sacrificing his distinctive brand. Remember when Biden endorsed same-sex marriage before Obama and most other high-ranking Democrats? Obama’s inner circle was upset, yet Obama recognized Biden’s candid response to a question as an example of his authenticity. One can’t imagine Pence behaving this way, and if he did, the presidential tweetstorm would be torrential.
Biden faces a third challenge common to some other modern vice presidents in running for president. Conscientious public servants who have sat in the Situation Room and the Oval Office, and wrestled with the truly vexing problems that reach that level, understand that governing is far more complicated than the general promises and superficial responses that inexperienced or less principled figures advance in presidential primary debates. Mondale, Bush and Gore faced that dilemma, and now it’s Biden’s burden, as his pragmatic and measured approach sometimes seems less exciting than the unrealizable promises of several of his competitors.
Future events will determine whether Biden’s presidential bid succeeds. Yet, the past makes clear that he and Obama saw and used the vice presidency to help address difficult problems that their administration encountered in very trying times. Obama made no secret of Biden’s central role in their administration.
The president entrusted his deputy with leadership roles in implementing the financial crisis Recovery Act, disengaging from Iraq, ratifying the New START nuclear treaty with Russia, reaching budget deals with Republican congressional leaders and handling international trouble spots. Together, they contributed to the bipartisan effort made by their recent predecessors to elevate the vice presidency to a higher plane, for the benefit of the nation.
It’s not that Pence, for his part, has done nothing as VP. He has presidential access and has placed some allies in important positions. He has done some high-profile foreign travel and worked with Republicans on legislation. But Trump has also repeatedly undermined Pence when the vice president tries to fulfill these roles, as he did last December when he refused to sign a budget bill in the form of a clean continuing resolution without funding for a wall on the Southern border, contrary to Pence’s assurances that the president would accept the legislation.
Even so, Pence is deferential to Trump to a fault. In a Cabinet meeting after Congress passed the tax cut in 2017, Pence praised Trump to his face 14 times, or once every 12 seconds for about three minutes. A few hours later, Pence was laying it on again. When Trump announced his 2020 candidacy on June 18, Pence gave a leadoff speech that cast Trump as a historic president. But while Trump’s own lengthy remarks at the event lavished praise on outgoing spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders and his own daughter Ivanka Trump, he mentioned “our great vice president” only in a passing introductory “thank you” and later briefly said that he was working on the space force.
Biden managed to be loyal to Obama without sacrificing his distinctive brand.
Pence’s obsequious behavior has preserved his standing with Trump even as other once-close Trump associates have been shown the White House door or publicly scorned. But such servility by the nation’s second constitutional officer is another form of humiliation that erodes the important function of the vice presidency in our constitutional system.
While Pence presents himself as a yes man and the president values him as a link to the base, they are downgrading the role that all presidents from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama have embraced for their second-in-command. That makes the vice presidency yet another casualty of the Trump administration. Maybe Biden will be able to revive it.
Joel K. Goldstein
Joel K. Goldstein is the author of “The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden” and other works on the vice presidency, presidency and constitutional law. He recently retired as the Vincent C. Immel professor of law at Saint Louis University.