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The sudden significance of the most insignificant office

August 10, 2012|By Michael A. Memoli
(Evan Vucci / AP Photo )

WASHINGTON – It seems that the vice presidency is never as important as it is right now.

Or at least as it seems to be at roughly this point every four years, when the nominating conventions are approaching and the political world is whipped up in “veepstakes” frenzy.

One of the great political mysteries with each presidential campaign is who the eventual nominee might pick as his would-be vice president, a process that is meant to be and often is secretive, even in a campaign atmosphere driven by leaks. And, right on cue, reporters and political insiders are looking for any hint of a shred of a clue from Mitt Romney as to which Republican he’ll tap as his running mate.

When he addressed the issue in an interview Thursday he was characteristically cagey, saying only that he expected “to have a person that has a strength of character, a vision for the country that adds something to the political discourse about the direction of the country.” That arguably is a description that could suit any of the leading possibilities – Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty – and  yet a debate ensued about whether Romney tipped his hand.

This weekend, television cameras will tail some of the would-be VP candidates as they campaign in November battlegrounds on Romney’s behalf. Chances are they’ll each be asked a version of the same questions about the process countless times. And it won’t be long before networks begin staking out the short-listers at their homes.

The interest isn’t just on the part of the media, either. Politico reported Friday morning that more than 200,000 people downloaded the Romney campaign’s special app to alert users when the choice is made.

And yet, as important as the process is – or, perhaps more accurately, as important as breaking the story is to some news organizations – chances are the eventual choice will go largely unnoticed in the final two months of the campaign. There are only a handful of big moments for the running mates – a convention speech, the vice presidential debate and perhaps some network interviews.

Otherwise, the standing order is to “do no harm,” that is, stay on message and away from bad headlines. Sarah Palin’s time as John McCain’s running mate four years ago showed just what can happen when the choice strays from the norm, and the benefits and risks of a bolder choice.

So why the “BFD,” to quote our current second in command?

Consider this: Since John Adams was elected in 1789, there have been 13,794 days, or roughly the combined equivalent of 38 years, in which the nation had no sitting vice president.

Put another way, the office has been vacant one out of every 12th day since Adams first took that post, one that he famously would come to deride as being the most insignificant office ever conceived.

Turns out the vice presidency was so important to the founders that the U.S. Constitution had no mechanism for filling a vacancy in the post until the 25th amendment was ratified 45 years ago, just four years after Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency following John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Until that time, in the event of a vacancy, no replacement was chosen until the subsequent election.

Beyond that most important of vice presidential duties – ascending to the presidency if the worst should happen – the office has only gained power and influence in recent years because presidents wanted it to. Since Jimmy Carter offered Walter Mondale a greater role as his partner in governing in 1977, the role has grown to become one of chief surrogate and senior advisor, often with a significant piece of policy real estate. That’s certainly been the case with  Joe Biden for Barack Obama.

But as Biden has also shown, the media tends only to focus on the No. 2 when he makes a mistake or goes off message. As we obsessively track the whereabouts of Portman, Pawlenty and Ryan, among others, Biden has been on vacation all week, at a beach in his home state in Delaware.

Not that anyone noticed.

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