Why Biden’s Decision Matters (for the Vice Presidency)

Oct 20, 2015 | Elections - Presidential (2016), History, Vice President Biden

Published: The Good Men Project (October 20, 2015)

As America prepares for Joe Biden’s decision on whether or not to run for president next year, it is perhaps appropriate to reflect on the impact his choice will have on the office he currently holds – the vice presidency of the United States.

In one sense, Biden’s legacy as vice president is already secure. While scaling back the excesses that caused his predecessor, Dick Cheney, to be widely viewed as the secret power behind the throne, he still played a key role in shaping and pushing for the Obama administration’s agenda on issues ranging from fiscal policy and gun control to the war in Afghanistan. He also deserves a great deal of credit for improving his commander-in-chief’s political fortunes, in particular turning attention away from Obama’s poorly-reviewed performance in the first 2012 presidential debate by decisively besting Paul Ryan in the vice presidential match-off. Despite occasionally attracting the wrong kind of attention with highly publicized gaffes, Biden ultimately falls into the modern tradition established by predecessors like Walter Mondale, Al Gore, and even Cheney himself – namely, that of an important player in the administration of the president whose name will always be associated with his own.

That said, if Biden runs for president and doesn’t win the Democratic nomination, he will be the first sitting vice president to be spurned by his own party since Alben W. Barkley in 1952. And to paraphrase Biden himself, that will be a big frickin’ deal.

It’s important to remember that since 1960, every incumbent vice president who has sought his party’s nomination has managed to receive it: Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, George H. W. Bush in 1988, Al Gore in 2000. Even Walter Mondale, though not a sitting vice president in 1984, managed to win his party’s nomination that year on the strength of his record while serving under President Jimmy Carter. Indeed, the only vice presidents in the second half of the twentieth century who didn’t at least get nominated by their party either lacked the benefit of incumbency when their turn rolled around (Dan Quayle), passed away before they had the chance (Nelson Rockefeller), or had been forced to resign in disgrace (Spiro Agnew).

Once again, Cheney deserves special attention in this discussion. By the time he was elected in 2000, the expectation that any vice president would eventually make a White House bid of his own had become so firmly entrenched that Cheney was compelled to emphatically disavow any ambitions of his own as soon as he was picked by George W. Bush. One could argue that Cheney wouldn’t have been nominated had he later changed his mind (his approval ratings were infamously low by that time), but because he had already disclaimed any presidential ambitions, it’s impossible to know whether he could have had a strong base of support had he actively cultivated one from the get-go. All that we know for certain is that, by not running for president in 2008, Cheney broke a precedent that had been in place for nearly fifty years.

This brings us back to why, if Biden seeks and fails to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, the fact of his defeat will signify an important diminution in the vice presidential office’s political clout. Before the 1960 election, vice presidents had a pretty poor track record when it came to being tapped by their party as their successor’s heir apparent. This was largely because the office itself wasn’t held in particularly high regard; the Constitution only stated that the vice president would take over if the president died or was incapacitated and should president over (and occasionally cast the tie-breaking vote in) the Senate. America’s first vice president, John Adams, described the position as the “most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” Not surprisingly, only three incumbent vice presidents had been elected directly to the presidency before 1960 – John Adams in 1796, Thomas Jefferson in 1800, and Martin Van Buren in 1836. Until Theodore Roosevelt’s election in 1904, even vice presidents who rose to the presidency due to the president’s death were consistently passed over when they sought to be nominated on their own (including John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur).

Of course, if Biden runs for president and does receive the Democratic nomination, it will affirm that the power that office has accrued since the mid-twentieth century continues to be a potent political force. That said, a defeat would indicate – regardless of the realities of what a vice president may do behind the scenes – the public no longer views a vice president as the rightful heir to the leadership of his or her party. This would be an event of no small consequence, and as such deserves to be acknowledged.