Vice Presidents: What Are They Good For?

Anyone who paid close attention in 2008 knew that Wall Street and corporate America vetted Barack Obama thoroughly, and that he passed their tests with flying colors.

For everyone else, he was, for all practical purposes, a Rorschach inkblot upon whom the hopeful, the desperate, and the gullible projected their dreams.

He was also the Great Black Hope who was going to bridge racial divides and heal the wounds of five hundred years of oppression. By breaking the ultimate color line – forget that piddling “glass ceiling” – he was going to do for American politics what Jackie Robinson did for baseball.

The difference was that the good that would follow would be a hundred times better because baseball is, after all, only a game.

It therefore seemed churlish to scrutinize his politics closely or to make a fuss over his not very subtle overtures to the captains of Finance and Industry. Obama therefore had many backers.

He had many detractors too; not all of them motivated by subtle or not so subtle racism. For the most part, though, his detractors opposed him for ridiculous reasons – because they thought he was “too liberal,” for example.

And, as if that weren’t enough, he was running against Hillary Clinton.

In 2008, the future Queen of Chaos was still prepping for taking over her husband’s job. She did not fully come into her own until Obama made her his Madam Secretary.

But even when she was little more than an official wife and then an undistinguished Senator, she had already done enough harm to merit widespread unpopularity. Being fine with George Bush’s Afghanistan and Iraq wars was only part of it; her vaunted role in her husband’s administration counted for a lot more.

There were, of course, voters whose top priority was to elect a woman; they either liked Hillary or kept their dislike to themselves.  And then as now, there were liberals who swallowed the line about Hillary being progressive, “pragmatic,” and smart as a whip.

Nevertheless, the idea that Hillary Clinton is bad news already had a lot of support. The reasons differed along political lines, but there was broad agreement on that.

Obviously, this helped Obama. What helped him even more, though, was the fact that, although the case against him, from the left, was clear and in plain sight, hardly anyone wanted to pay it heed. It was more agreeable to buy into the ambient blather about “hope” and “change.”

Then Obama picked Joe Biden to be his running mate. From that point on, observers who didn’t see what was coming had to be willfully, not just carelessly, blind.

In the 2008 debates leading up to the nomination, Biden was the only candidate — except Hillary, of course — who ran to Obama’s right.

Biden fancied himself a foreign policy expert, and the conventional wisdom had it that indeed he was. He had been spouting off on the subject for as long as anyone could remember, and Foreign Affairs was one of his bailiwicks in the Senate.

In truth, though, he was as clueless and inept as Hillary, and just as convinced that the American empire is an “indispensible” force for good. Obama was too; this is one of many reasons why he and Biden got along so well.

Right-leaning émigré groups from the Baltic to the Balkans loved Joe Biden, and he was one of Israel’s most ardent supporters in Congress.   That is no small feat.

He seems to have thought too that if he couldn’t be President, he should at least be Secretary of State. Hillary wanted that office as well – to gild her résumé, and to change “regimes” that America couldn’t entirely control. A befuddled Empire Man, a clueless Empire Woman; they both believed they were right for the job.

In his infinite wisdom, Obama chose Hillary, kicking Biden upstairs to the Vice Presidency. No doubt, he had his reasons, though only God knows what they were.

Obama’s decision put Biden a heartbeat away, as they say, from becoming the so-called Free World’s CEO and Commander-in-Chief. Two decades earlier, Biden himself all but made certain that this was as close as he would ever get.

He did it by stealing some lines from Neil Kinnock about how he was the first in his family to attend university. That was in 1988, the first time Biden sought the Democratic Party’s nomination for President.

In those days, news of Donald Trump was confined mainly to sleazy New York tabloids and gossip magazines. He had other trophy wives then too; the peerless Melania, barely eighteen years old, was living a continent away.

Evidently, the standards have slipped a lot since then – especially now that the Donald has become a figure on the national political scene.

Biden at least had the good sense to steal from a Brit whom most Americans had never heard of; not from a sitting First Lady. Even so, it would take twenty years for “Plagiarism Joe” to become a serious – and failed — contender again.

He probably didn’t realize it at the time, but Biden had really done a number on himself.

Because he could affect the common touch, a rare talent among Democrats these days, campaign consultants could have turned him into a formidable candidate.

Although his embourgeoisement is profound and undeniable, and has been for a very long time, he still knows how to play the scrappy working class kid from Scranton card whenever it suits his purpose or the purposes of the financiers and industrialists he serves.

But he blew his chance, and is now known mainly for his sententiousness and his gaffes. Voters seem to find him likeable, but hardly anyone, outside his immediate family, wants him to be President.

Obamaphilia survived Obama’s selection of Biden. It wasn’t until several months into his presidency that the Rorschach man stopped being a magnet for illusions.

When that finally happened, the reasons had almost nothing to do with his Vice President. Obstructionist Republicans and Obama’s own fecklessness and pusillanimity did “hope” and “change” in.

But once Obama put Biden on the ticket, the writing was on the wall. From that point on, it was hard not to see the shape of things to come.


Vice Presidents didn’t used to do much – beyond helping their running mates get votes in regions or with constituencies where they had some credibility. Sometimes too, they would be assigned tasks too unseemly for Presidents to handle on their own.

Hubert Humphrey had lots of civil rights cred before he got the nod; it was no surprise, therefore, that, at the Democrat’s 1964 convention in Atlantic City, LBJ got him to be the one to tell the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to take a hike.

After that, Humphrey became a joke; the great satirist Tom Lehrer even wrote a song about it, “Whatever Became of Hubert?”

Another role for Vice Presidents was to be the President’s “attack dog.” Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s VP, gave that sort of thing a bad name, but this is still one of the VP’s principal functions.

After Agnew was forced to resign, the idea took hold that Vice Presidents should be colorless – like Gerald Ford or Walter Mondale or the first George Bush.

When that Bush finally got his own chance to pick a VP, he had a slightly different idea: he chose Dan Quayle to make himself look good and also for impeachment insurance. Being old school, he seems to have been banking on the idea that Americans wanted the White House occupied by a man of substance. No one could accuse Dan Quayle of that.

Bill Clinton had a different idea too.   He wanted a VP who, should he succeed him, would not mess up so much that, when Hillary was more seasoned, she could ascend the Throne in her own right.

Al Gore seemed to fit the bill, but when his time came, he ran a piss poor campaign; and, when he could have won even so, he blew the recount. And so, George W. Bush was let loose upon the world.

Bush didn’t exactly pick Dick Cheney to be his VP; Cheney picked himself. It is painful to recall how welcome that development once seemed: Cheney, along with Donald Rumsfeld, were old Washington hands and Bush family fixers. With them acting as Regents, the conventional wisdom was that the bumbling frat boy would be kept in line.

He was kept in line, but not in the way that most people expected or hoped.

Cheney saw to it that Cheney would call the shots on matters of interest to Cheney.   Everything pertaining to war and to what we nowadays call “homeland security” interested him.

No surprise, therefore, that when Obama picked Biden, one consideration was that he would not become, and would not be perceived to have become, anything like Cheney.

This made political sense. The part of the public that tracks reality soon came to see Cheney as Evil Incarnate. Biden is too daffy to be truly villainous.

And, for the past eight years, Biden has known is place. Obama chose well.


Barring divine intervention, the only way that Donald Trump will see the inside of the Oval Office is if his old friends, Hillary and Bill, invite him in. Therefore Michael Pence will never be Vice President.

But because it is at least a theoretical possibility, one has to wonder what the hell Trump was thinking?

That his running mate would be a dumbass was never in doubt. Only a dumbass would associate with the Donald.

But why did he have to pick a dumbass as boring and colorless as Mike Pence?

Newt Gingrich would have been “amazing,” as Trump might say. A pseudo-intellectual with an ego almost as oversized as Trump’s, who is even more willing than Trump to say or do anything if he sees some percentage in it. With the Newt too, we’d have his (and Benjamin Netanyahu’s) patron, Sheldon Adelson, to kick around. Can’t beat that!

I’d even settle for Chris Christie. His heft and his Jersey Shore vibes would make politics funny again. With a Clinton in our future, we could use some of that.

The least that a merciful God ought to have done is provide American voters with a Republican VP candidate who could claim some redeeming comedic value.

What we are getting instead is Wonder Bread.

Pence says that he is a Christian first, a conservative second, and only then a Republican. He could also have said that he is an anti-abortion candidate first, a homophobe second, and a Hillary-style war monger third.

Could this be Trump’s secret weapon for unifying the GOP and for winning over independents?   Seriously?

Well, maybe: he did, after all, let Ted Cruz diss him at his own convention.

Maybe, a few days earlier, the Donald was thinking a tad more clearly — and therefore, when he could no longer put his choice off any longer, he decided to go for a Quayle-like figure; somebody who would never steal the show, and whom he could keep under his thumb.

Or maybe not. Being an unabashed narcissist who cannot imagine a world in which anyone pays attention to anyone but him, it is just as likely that the Donald chose Pence for no reason at all.

Or perhaps he was self-aware enough to realize that what he really wanted was nobody else on the ticket, and Pence was the next best thing.

The consensus view within the commentariat seems to be that with the convention looming, the Donald thought it wise to make a peace offering to Ted Cruz’s fans. Ergo, Mike Pence.

Will it work? Maybe; it doesn’t take much to fool fools.

But the fact remains: unlike his VP pick, Trump is neither a Christian nor a conservative nor a Republican. He is a self-aggrandizing libertine, an American Berlusconi, who, like anyone with a functioning brain, disdains the godly and free market theologies that American “conservatives” espouse.

And so far from being a Republican, he has, to his everlasting credit, brought the Grand Old Party to a condition from which it may never recover.

He is also an unbridled narcissist, however, who, whether or not he really wants to be President, does not want to lose – especially to someone for whom he, justifiably, has no respect and who is, moreover, a girl.

It is hard to see how Pence could help him with that, even if his name on Trump yard signs and bumper stickers keeps a few addle-brained evangelicals on board.

But Trump can sometimes be shrewd. It is not clear how, but maybe he is onto something.


As of this writing, Clinton has yet to name her VP; the word, though, is that former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack are likely choices.

If so, she will be going for white bread too – picking somebody who is bland enough never to upstage her. Great minds think alike.

Trump praises evangelicals, but holds them in contempt – in much the way that rightwing Israelis praise, but also despise, Christian Zionists. Anything for the cause!

It is telling, though, that, even if only for a fleeting moment, Trump found it expedient to placate the Republican Party’s theocratic wing with his choice of a VP.

Hillary probably won’t do even that much for the millions who, just a short while ago, were feeling the Bern.

I could be wrong, of course: she could still name a faux progressive like Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown. But why would she bother?

Now that Sanders has capitulated, the wind has gone out of the movement’s sails, and she probably feels that it is safe again to give free rein to her longstanding contempt for everyone to her left.

An “inclusive” social liberal who, like Hillary, is a card-carrying member of the War Party – and who, like Pence, is no edgier than a bowl of Jell-O – is therefore the most likely choice.

It is hardly worth speculating about, however; as long as Hillary’s health holds up and as long as the wheels of justice remain stalled, it hardly matters whom she picks.

She doesn’t need a running mate to help her win in November, and she and Bill are more than up to the task of wrecking the world on their own.

Running mate LBJ famously “delivered” Texas for John Kennedy. But Kennedy was running against Richard Nixon. That was a close race: conventional wisdom has it that had Nixon shaved before his televised debate with Kennedy and used makeup, he might have dealt Kennedy a fatal blow.

The Donald, on the other hand, has almost no chance of holding back a Clinton landslide; he may already have peaked. Unless he strikes pay dirt – truly damaging “lost” emails, for example, or the transcripts of the speeches that made the Clintons rich – he is heading for a trouncing.

Had Bernie Sanders – remember him? — gone after the jugular the way that Trump will, or even had he been a tad less the gentleman, he probably could have stopped the Clinton juggernaut even without the benefit of pay dirt. Trump is another story. With all his “negatives” and his gift for undermining himself, he would need to strike the mother lode to have any chance at all.

Hillary therefore has little reason to worry about him. But she has every reason to worry about what will happen after the election is over, when the consequences of her war mongering start sinking in. She will then find herself needing a functional equivalent of Dan Quayle.

Maybe she already realizes this at some level. We will know better soon enough, when we find out who her running mate will be.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).