The Veep Factor: Suddenly Significant

When did a bucket of spit become champagne?

We’re all familiar with John Nance Garner’s famous description of the vice presidency as not being worth the aforementioned bucket of effluvia, but has that changed? (You political buffs out there, of course, all know Garner, himself a vice president for eight years, used a little rougher comparison, but this is, after all, a family newspaper.)

Vice presidential nominees traditionally have been viewed as maybe — and I emphasize that word — bringing a state or a region or perhaps a small percentage of a group over to the voting column of the man he serves. But, even in the era of media megahype, the general perception has been that presidential candidates win elections, and their running mates are just along for the ride. Then they (choose one) A) largely disappear into a ceremonial role as the president’s straight man or B) kindle their own ambitions for the top slot.

Now, however, it seems both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin have been brought on their respective tickets to add a depth and a dimension that was seen as lacking in the standard-bearers — something that might finally start driving them apart in the polls.

Biden is believed to bring foreign policy stature and the whiff of adulthood to Obama, who, despite being a hands-down favorite for election as president of the European Union, has (inexplicably to many) yet to close the deal with the American public. Similarly, Palin brings just the opposite — youth, excitement and genuine outside-the-Beltway credentials — to McCain. After all, you can’t get further away from Washington on the continental United States than Alaska, even if Ted Stevens lives just down the road.

As Obama might say, why us? And why now?

Even the august New York Times is “recalibrating” its thinking. Witness this lead sentence on page one this past Sunday: “Senators John McCain and Barack Obama have begun recalibrating their strategies for the presidential campaign — and reconsidering some of their basic assumptions about which states and voters are in play — in a contest recast by Mr. McCain’s unexpected selection of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate.”

Imagine, an election “recast” by a candidate’s choice for running mate? A presidential campaign reconsidering which states and voters are in play because of the vice presidential nominee?

In recent years, it seems every nominee for the top job insists that he wants a number two who won’t just go to funerals, but in fact, other than chairing the odd commission here and there, that is exactly what they end up doing.

Not that some fine individuals haven’t been vice presidents. Some have even gone on to be good presidents. Of course, like everything in this town beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and time is a remarkable makeover agent.

At some point in the last 25 years, for example, the troubled presidency of FDR’s much-maligned final vice president, Harry S. Truman, was transformed into a White House high point. Who knows how these things happen? Then there’s the administration of Dwight Eisenhower’s number two, Richard M. Nixon, who Woodward and Bernstein aside, did some pretty solid things while president, as historians are beginning to acknowledge.

As for the vice presidency itself, there are a lot of people around this town who think Dick Cheney has done a pretty darn good job, too, despite his fans in the Democratic Party and the Washington press corps. Or maybe even because of them.

Cheney is certainly the first vice president in modern times who has been routinely characterized as bringing more to the job. The Democrats quickly cast him as George W. Bush’s brain and contended that he was the real president. Wrong on both counts. But he was a highly influential counselor and a key player during the momentous events that have marked this Bush presidency. A polarizing figure perhaps, although not by design, but America is not a safer place with Dick Cheney riding into the sunset.

For Cheney, however, it’s probably pretty safe to say that the vice presidency was enough.

Biden has made two runs at the big house, so we know he still aspires for higher office despite his age. Reagan and now McCain have knocked down that barrier anyway. As for Palin, she’s energized the Republicans in a way we haven’t seen for months and months, and at age 44 the future is wide-open. America’s first woman president? Don’t rule it out, and wouldn’t Hillary just hate that?


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