A Letter from the Provinces: On the Rightful Irrelevance of the Vice Presidency

by Patrick Baker                                                                 September 7, 2008

In the provinces we are following the presidential campaign as intently as you in the mother country, and it was quite easy to get us to take the vice presidential bait. But now that the shock of the selections has worn off, the conventions have mercifully passed, and we have started thinking again, we wonder just how important either Joe Biden or Sarah Palin can be.

    Certainly not as important as Dick Cheney, the only vice president ever to take a more active hand in formulating policy than his boss. And thank God! Let us pass over the short-sightedness, the bellicosity, and the belligerence of his posture, and focus on one thing: its inappropriateness. Whoever the American people elected to lead it in 2000 and 2004, it was a disservice to us all for the President legitimately chosen by the Supreme Court to hand the football off to Refrigerator Cheney on the goal line.

    In the pre-Cheney universe the vice presidency seemed more akin to a major ambassadorial post. Sure, its holder stood first in the line of succession, but he was of decidedly less importance for day-to-day affairs than the big three Cabinet secretaries – State, Treasury, and Defense – and sometimes even than the President’s wife (one thinks of the Wilson, Reagan, and Clinton administrations). The vice president’s central task was to help the president get elected and then get out of the picture. So let us please stop treating our new candidates as if they were going to have a hand in ruling the empire. They won’t.

    With both Biden and Palin seemingly more than content to take a secondary or even tertiary role, we happily anticipate this return to normalcy. What continues to disturb, however, is the amount of attention both the media and the rival camps continue to put on people of so little moment. The last time any VP candidate made such waves was the 1992 campaign, when Dan Quayle couldn’t spell potato and lost his mind to the United Negro College Fund, and when Admiral Stockdale appeared to have a ‘Nam flashback during a televised debate.

    The disturbing parallel: the sick fascination with a mere sidekick’s fitness has been inversely proportional to the content of the campaign. With Bush the First babbling on about points of light and Perot making vague reference to misleading charts, what else was there to talk about? Now, with Obama and McCain substantially agreeing to be vague on everything except whether Iraq is our war, we have to focus on their familiars to tell them apart.

    Of course it matters who is one heartbeat away from the Oval Office, but it matters much less than who is elected there directly. So let Biden and Palin act the part of attack dogs and fearsome fish; let them speak from the heart or from someone else’s talking points; let them pretend that it is possible to put change or country first, as if we could do one without the other after a presidency so corrupt, so irresponsible, and so cynical that even the Grant administration bows its head in awe, yielding its well-won title.

    It is time that Obama and McCain stop beating around Bush and say what they really have in store for the country. With the general election only two months away, they must finally show how they will overcome the legacy of the past seven and a half years, a legacy whose memory is so painful that history itself would rather forget it. This is no time for PR or platitudes, but for clearly formulated plans. That is just the beginning of what they owe to you at home, and to us in the provinces.

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2 Responses to A Letter from the Provinces: On the Rightful Irrelevance of the Vice Presidency

  1. Caroline says:

    Mr Baker,
    I appreciate your commentary on the importance (or lack of importance) the candidates for vice president play in the presidential race.

    Sure, the presidential candidate is much more important, especially if he stays alive. But, SHOULD his heart beat its last, I would NOT hope to find a creationist at the helm of our country for even a split second.

    I mean, who would have guessed G. Ford would have made it to the oval office? Anything can happen.

  2. Bob says:

    I wonder what Mr. Baker’s intent is when he asks the reader to “stop treating our new [VP] candidates as if they were going to have a hand in ruling the empire.” Since nearly a third of all U.S. presidents had previously been vice presidents, it seems like a serious possibility that they will have a direct hand, albeit in the future. But more importantly, McCain’s convenient joke that the VP’s only responsibilities are “to inquire daily as to the health of the president” and “attend the funerals of Third World dictators” was, strictly speaking, not true in the case of, say, Richard Nixon or Al Gore. And certainly not in the case of Dick Cheney. There is no reason to believe that the transformed vice presidency of the Cheney years will ever revert back to the quaint “bucket of warm piss” vice presidency of the John Nance Garner years. Mr. Baker wants us to stop bickering about Sarah Palin and demand real policies from McCain, but he knows that will not happen. U.S. Presidential campaigns are not and have never been about policies. The real significance of McCain’s selection of Palin, besides what it says about his decision-making skills, is that its speaks loudly to the fact that the renegade McCain is either still beholden to the interests of the religious Right or shares them. Palin may wield significant power in a McCain administration, she will become a front-runner in the future Republican presidential candidates field, and she may actually become president (through election or other means). So I think we should keep talking about her.

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