Being vice president of the United States is sort of like working for Donald Trump or watching reality TV. It requires a high degree of tolerance for indignity and abuse.
The job is inherently subservient — the only thing worse than embarrassing the president is outshining him — and the office almost always diminishes its occupant. Enter as a respected governor or U.S. senator and soon you’re transformed in the public eye to a lapdog, a nullity or an anchor on the administration.
(A notable exception being Dick Cheney, who, in caricature, was portrayed as the puppeteer and power behind a feckless President George W. Bush.)
Kamala Harris, California’s former U.S. senator and attorney general, is just the latest to experience the enervating effect of the vice presidency, alternating between periods of mockery and being largely ignored.
Now it’s her turn to suffer another humiliating rite: speculation on whether Harris will be booted from the Democratic ticket in 2024.
There have been scattered calls for the vice president’s replacement — a column here, a blabbering talking head there — and some not very reliable news outlets reporting that President Biden has quietly made up his mind, given the vice president’s dismal poll ratings, to cut her loose.
Recently, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who challenged Biden and Harris for the 2020 Democratic nomination, caused one of those bouts of Beltway hyperventilation by endorsing the president for a second term but equivocating when it came to keeping Harris as his running mate.
“I really want to defer to what makes Biden comfortable on his team,” said Warren, who soon followed her conspicuously tepid remarks with a mop-and-bucket statement “fully” supporting the reelection of Biden and Harris “together.”
No matter that Biden has given every sign — in both public and private — that he plans to seek reelection with Harris by his side. The conversations that have taken place regarding 2024 have all been grounded in the presumption she will be on the Democratic ticket, according to several people familiar those discussions. There has been no talk, they said, of a replacement.
Still, it is “virtually inevitable that whenever a president gets ready to run for reelection there’s talk about dumping the vice president,” said Joel Goldstein, an emeritus law professor at St. Louis University and expert on the office.
The chatter may be off base, but it’s happening for a reason.
President George H.W. Bush faced pressure to replace Vice President Dan Quayle, who suffered the same kind of lousy approval ratings as Harris.
Former President George W. Bush considered swapping out Dick Cheney as his 2004 running mate as a way, he wrote in his memoirs, to “demonstrate that I was in charge” and that he, not Cheney, was running the White House.
In 2011, when President Obama was at a low ebb in popularity, the White House chief of staff ordered up research on whether it would be a good idea to replace Biden with Hillary Clinton ahead of Obama’s reelection bid. Some of those involved in the campaign later insisted it was never a serious option.
For much of the country’s history, Goldstein said, changing vice presidents was not all that unusual.
The union of president and understudy was often a kind of shotgun marriage, arranged by party bosses to give a ticket regional and/or ideological balance. The working relationship between supposed partners was virtually nonexistent. Vice presidents spent most of their time presiding over the Senate, one of their constitutional duties, rather than offering counsel to the chief executive or helping shape policy.
That evolved, Goldstein said, over the course of the 20th century.
In 1921, Calvin Coolidge became the first vice president to regularly sit in on meetings of the president’s Cabinet. Over the decades, other vice presidents were increasingly integrated into the workings of the White House. In 1977, Walter Mondale became the first to have an office in the West Wing, just a short walk from the Oval Office, where vice presidents have lodged ever since.
More significantly, by the middle of the 20th century presidents had begun deciding on their own whom they wished to run with — which means replacing their vice president would suggest, at least implicitly, they had made a mistake.
Harris has her critics within the White House and those around Biden. The relationship between the president and vice president has been described as friendly but not intimate. Even so, the political cost of replacing Harris, if the thought ever crossed Biden’s mind, would far outweigh any gain.
Effectively firing the first female, first Black and first Asian American vice president would risk a serious backlash from the Democratic base — especially Black women, who were crucial to Biden’s election.
Harris “was on the ticket for a reason. They won in 2020 for a reason,” said Aimee Allison, the founder and head of She the People, an organization that works to empower women of color. Come 2024, she noted, “it’s still the same dynamic.”
Pushing Harris aside “would definitely ricochet through Black America” — and not in a good way, agreed Aprill Turner, a spokeswoman for Higher Heights for America, a group that advocates for Black women in politics.
In 1976, facing a stiff election fight, President Ford chose to replace Vice President Nelson Rockefeller as a way to bolster his standing with restive conservatives. Even with a different running mate, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, Ford lost, and he came to regret the move.
Voters have consistently shown their focus is on the top of the ticket, not the No. 2 position.
Good or bad, the vice president can generally be summed up in a single word: afterthought.
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