Two wars have led two vice presidents to fundamentally alter the role of the nation's second-highest office. In less than a decade, Republican Dick Cheney's hawkish stance on Iraq and now Democrat Joe Biden's dovish instincts toward Afghanistan have radically changed more than 200 years of American governmental history.
Founding Father John Adams, the first vice president, declared the job he helped create the most “inconsequential ever devised.” No longer. George W. Bush, with minimal military experience, was thrust unexpectedly by 9/11 into being a war president. As Michael Corleone famously observed, in preparing to start armed conflict, a leader needs a “wartime consigliere.” Dick Cheney, who led the Pentagon during the elder Bush's triumph in the 1991 Iraqi War, seemed sent by central casting.
Eight years later, an even greener chief executive named Barack Obama had available a vice president with the most hands-on experience in foreign and military matters of anyone ever nominated for the job in the two-party era. This time, a Democratic president needed a wartime counselor who was more go-slow than gung-ho. Like his predecessor, Cheney, Biden is another with an extra-ego chromosome with absolute confidence in his judgment. From stage right to stage left they entered, they fought, they conquered. Their impact on war policy is unprecedented, indeed astounding, given American history.
Take the modern era. Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn't seek Harry Truman's World War II advice. Indeed Truman succeeded to the presidency after Roosevelt's sudden death knowing little about Allied strategy, and nothing whatsoever concerning the Manhattan Project. In turn President Truman went to war in Korea without concern for his vice president's opinion. Dwight Eisenhower ended that Asian conflict without seeking Richard Nixon's approval. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson was so fearful of saying the wrong thing he was basically silent even though he was part of the top-secret group assembled by President Kennedy to help him go eyeball-to-eyeball with the Kremlin.
During the Vietnam War, President Johnson used to brag about having his vice president's nuts in his pocket. The Nixon tapes show an utter disregard for Vice President Spiro Agnew's war advice, either on Vietnam or the Cold War.
It isn't until the presidency of Ronald Reagan that the war views of the vice president, in this case George H.W. Bush, were of interest to the person making the decisions. But there's still no evidence that Reagan's strategy toward the Evil Empire was influenced in any meaningful way by his vice president's thinking. When this same George Bush launched the Iraq War, he wasn't waiting until he heard the views of Vice President Dan Quayle in a situation room strategy session.
This all changed after 9/11. To be sure, had Bill Clinton been faced with responding to these terrorist attacks, Vice President Al Gore would have been a major voice in the war room. But we can never know what influence he might have had on the ultimate strategy. However, we do know that Cheney led the hawks around President George W. Bush, exerting the greatest influence on war strategy of any previous holder of the job. Yet it's possible that Joe Biden, a far more reluctant warrior, may in the final analysis have an even more profound impact on the commander-in-chief's battle plan. This should become clear with the passage of time.
But we don't have to wait to know that these wartime vice presidents have changed the job forever. Admittedly, this is still the minority view, as most experts believe the power of Cheney and Biden is a matter of circumstance. As a constitutional and legal matter, this is of course correct, because their increased power is purely derivative, and can be eliminated at the order, indeed whim, of the president. So, yes, they had to be invited to the meetings and encouraged by the boss to speak freely.
Yet as a practical governing matter, the roles of Cheney and Bush eventually must be understood as not circumstantial, but long overdue. Key cabinet advisers have a bureaucracy to represent, the president's national security advisers likewise their own team. The same applies to the chiefs representing the various wings of the Pentagon.
A vice president, on the other hand, is free of such considerations and constraints, answerable only to the boss if not his or her conscience. It's a freedom that in the right, experienced hands is invaluable to a president, especially in times of crisis.
The White House doesn't lack for brilliant analysts or good advice. But a president has to be leery of the hidden agendas that show up in the Oval Office. A good vice president can operate unfettered, and has to be honest in his or her views.
Did Cheney push Bush too far? Is Biden failing to push Obama far enough? The answers will forever be unknowable. But this is unmistakable: Cheney and Biden have already exerted more influence in the White House than the preceding 42 vice presidents.
Yes, Mr. Adams, it took 200 years. But sir, you should have had more confidence in your work in Philadelphia. “Today I am nothing, but tomorrow I could be everything” is another of the legendary Bostonian's observations on his vice-presidential plight. In the future, a vice president with the incredible talent of a John Adams will find his situation still awkward, but vital to the success of the person who put him there. S
Paul Goldman is a longtime Democratic strategist who has worked on the gubernatorial campaigns of Doug Wilder, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.