VP Debate Review

It is all too easy to fall into the Pundit trap, and attempt to provide instant canned insights. With a hot Vice Presidential race (that includes a hot VP), the temptation is overwhelming. But the point of this blog (and my dissertation) is deeper than that – it is using the Vice President as a window into the national security process and trying to figure out how the Vice President can both be helpful to the President and better prepared for the Presidency if need be.

So I’ll try to push things that way, but some punditry is unavoidable.

Unfortunately, it isn’t easy. Reading all of the pundits before the debate, I realized, I had nothing new to say about it. Biden needed to not bully Palin and not gaffe. Palin needed to not gaffe and needed to stand there and take her lumps and not look to miserable doing it. There was a substantial chance that one or the other would not be up to it – but they both managed. Biden definitely won (was really quite masterful on the whole), but not by a knockout. Palin was good enough (having set expectations very low, not drooling was probably sufficient.) It is possible that radio listeners thought she lost by a huge margin, since her statements were not terribly clear or coherent. But combined with a nice smile and some winks, she was appealing enough on screen. In my preview of the Obama-McCain debate I described McCain’s lack of polish as a speaker, his apparent lack of artifice, as the most clever artifice of all. Perhaps the same will apply to Palin’s debate performance.

(It is possible that she is studying Tina Fey and imitating herself. On that note, my wife burst into laughter about ten minutes into the debate when she realized that the inevitable SNL sketch will feature Keenan Thompson as Gwen Ifill.)

Defining their Roles

There were a few times when the debate turned to the role of the Vice President. Ifill asked a specific question about the Administration’s claim that the Vice Presidency resides in both the executive and legislative branches. Biden rejected this as ridiculous. He explained that the VP’s role in the Senate is very limited and that the Administration had been out of bounds in its efforts to expand the VP’s role in the legislative branch. Palin (probably less familiar with the issue) said that she was hoping the Constitution would provide some flexibility in terms of shaping the Vice President’s role.

Interesting, in that light, that Biden said he would be the administration’s pointman on legislative affairs. The Senate is extremely jealous of its prerogatives and (starting with John Adams) has pushed back against Vice Presidents who tried to ride herd on the Senate. No less formidable a figure than Lyndon Baines Johnson (a true master of the Senate) was pushed from power when he became Vice President. Nelson Rockefeller, a formidable figure – but without Senate experience – tried act as lobbyist-in-chief and quickly became persona non grata in the cloakrooms where the real deals are done.

Vice Presidents who presided with a light hand did much better, and some Vice Presidents (such as Mondale) did some very careful lobbying. However, Vice Presidential lobbying can create questions about the Vice President’s impartiality as a Presiding officer. Therefore, the executive branch lobbying operations are kept separate from the Vice President, who serves rather as a point of contact between the two branches might be a better term for this role. Biden is an experienced Senator and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to this role.

Palin should be extremely careful in how she handles the Senate. If she displays the brash confidence for which she has become known, the Senate will quickly put her in her place. The last governors to preside over the Senate were Rockefeller and Agnew – both had troubles in that role.

Palin also said she looked forward to leading on the administration’s energy policy. It is certainly possible that she will have real authority in this role, but more than likely (particularly since she has no real DC powerbase or experience) this will be a throwback to the commissioner role that Vice Presidents played in the 1960s. These commissions were generally “feel-good” initiatives intended to make it appear something was being done but had little actual power.

As I’ve written before, an ongoing challenge for a McCain administration will be giving her substantial work that both makes use of her talents and prepares her for power – should that become necessary.

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