Mike Pence and Tim Kaine
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Running for Veep: Indiana Governor Mike Pence (left) and Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia (right)

CREDIT: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images (Mike Pence); Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images (Tim Kaine)

A Heartbeat Away

The vice presidency has long been the butt of jokes, but the job is much more important than it used to be
Tim Kaine
Mike Pence

Hillary Clinton’s recent bout of pneumonia didn’t last long, but it put the issue of presidential health front and center in the race for the White House. 

Her illness, coupled with the nominees’ ages—Clinton, the Democrat, is 69; Donald Trump, the Republican, is 70—has prompted a closer look at the role of the vice president, who is first in the line of succession if a president dies or is unable to continue to serve in office.

“It should remind people of the importance of the two vice presidential candidates, and whether they are appropriate presidential successors based on their experience, skill, character, and substantive views,” says Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University and an expert on the vice presidency.

Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, 58, of Virginia, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012, where he now serves on the Foreign Relations Committee. Before that, he was Virginia’s governor for four years. 

Trump’s choice for vice president, Mike Pence, 57, spent 12 years representing Indiana in the House of Representatives before becoming the state’s governor in 2013.

‘It is very much a stepping-stone to the top spot.’

The conventional wisdom is that most voters don’t pay much attention to who’s on the bottom of a presidential ticket. But they probably should, since many of these understudies have ended up stepping into the lead role. 

Of the 47 vice presidents since 1789, 14 have become president. Nine got the job without being elected, when the president died in office or resigned. For example, John Tyler became president in 1841 when William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia a month after his inauguration; Theodore Roosevelt got the top job after William McKinley was assassinated in 1901; and in 1974, Gerald Ford moved up when Richard M. Nixon, facing impeachment over the Watergate scandal, became the first and only president to resign.

Consolation Prize

Nevertheless, the vice presidency has long been the target of jokes—often from vice presidents themselves. John Adams, the first to hold the job, called it “the most insignificant office.” And John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president for his first two terms (1933-41), said the job wasn’t worth a bucket of warm urine. (Actually, he used a word we can’t print here.) 

Some of the ridicule has stemmed from how the office was conceived. Aside from taking over for a president who dies or can no longer serve, the vice president’s responsibility under the Constitution is just to preside over the Senate and break tie votes. Other than that, the job wasn’t given much thought, says Stanley Katz, a constitutional historian at Princeton University. 

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CREDIT: Payne ©2016 Detroit News. Reprinted by permission of Universal Uclick.  All rights reserved.

In fact, in the early days of the U.S., the vice presidency was merely a consolation prize. The vice president wasn’t a running mate but a runner-up: The candidate who finished second in the presidential election became the vice president. This meant that the president and vice president were political rivals, as was the case in the election to succeed George Washington in 1796: Thomas Jefferson became vice president after losing the presidential election to his nemesis, John Adams. 

The system in use today—in which the president and vice president run on a single ticket—took effect with the ratification of the 12th Amendment in 1804.

Even with that change, however, most presidents until recently shared little power with their vice presidents, who were often left to perform mostly ceremonial duties. 

The shift began during the presidency of Bill Clinton in the 1990s and continued under his successor, George W. Bush. By all accounts, Presidents Clinton and Bush gave Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney more power and influence than any other vice presidents in American history. 

For the past eight years, President Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, has carried on that tradition. He attends Obama’s daily national security briefing and all important foreign policy meetings. It’s a far cry from the days during World War II when FDR’s vice president, Harry S. Truman, wasn’t even told about the top-secret development of the atomic bomb.

“It’s certainly a good deal more than just going to state funerals these days,” says Lee Edwards, a presidential scholar at the Heritage Foundation.

Clinton has said she wants her VP to serve as a sounding board, and Kaine’s strong record on immigration issues and his fluent Spanish could help get immigration reform passed. Trump says he expects to lean on Pence for his Washington expertise.

Help on Election Day?

Presidential candidates also hope their running mates will help them on Election Day in November. Kaine is a popular Democrat from a critical battleground state: His presence on the ticket could help swing Virginia into Clinton’s column. 

Pence isn’t from a swing state, but he’s well known as a conservative governor and a religious man, and that could help with evangelical Christian voters, a group Trump must win.  

It’s likely that both Pence and Kaine would consider using the VP job as a launching pad to get elected to the presidency—something five vice presidents have done.  

“It is very much a stepping-stone to the top spot,” says Edwards, the presidential scholar. 

Whoever winds up as No. 2 might reflect on what’s changed—and what hasn’t—since 1789, when John Adams said: “I am vice president. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.”

By the Numbers

    • 14

      NUMBER of vice presidents who’ve become president, including nine who moved into the top job without being elected.

    • 2

      NUMBER of women selected as vice presidential candidates of major-party tickets: Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008.

    • 1804

      YEAR the 12th Amendment, which requires the presidential and vice presidential candidates to run on a single ticket, was ratified. Before that, the vice presidency was awarded to the presidential candidate who came in second. 

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