As a matter of full disclosure, I should note that I have not seen it yet – although I am thinking of breaking down and subscribing to HBO just so I can watch it (also, I really love the star – Julia Louis-Dreyfus, I am a Seinfeld dork of the first order). And anyway, for a pundit offering an opinion without the slightest familiarity with the subject is not a problem.
By all accounts, the show is about a neurotic vice president who constantly gaffes, desperately seeks power and attention, and is utterly peripheral to the president. Fair enough (and I don’t doubt the show is a terrific character study and entertainment), but not realistic (at least not since Mondale.)
When Carter selected Mondale as his running mate, he asked Mondale what he would need to be an effective partner in governance. Mondale gave a list, including complete access to White House meetings and paper trail, regular private meetings with the President, and an office in the White House. Carter gave him all of these things. Vice Presidents since have also possessed these perquisites. They are not mandated, a President certainly can take them away. – but doing so would effectively make the President look kind of stupid. After all, in picking the VP the President effectively says that they would vote for this person to be President. To then never talk to the VP, keep them out of the White House etc. would raise questions about the initial decision. In short, it would be political prudent to keep the VP close and at least keep the appearance of their engagement rather then exiling them.
Further, Presidents have actually chosen their running mates fairly well. From Mondale on the VPs have been individuals of substantial capability and distinction (three Senators, and two former cabinet officers.) I don’t have the energy to get into it here – but while Quayle is generally regarded as the weakest of the batch he was not that bad. He performed poorly on TV, but he had been in the Senate for 8 years, winning a tough race to get the seat, and was well regarded by other Senators. Also, he was not a close advisor to Bush but he was not frozen out of the process. He kept all of Mondale’s perks.
The image of the inconsequential bumbling VP, limited to ceremonial tasks, ignored by all harks back to Throttlebottom. Interestingly, on the show’s mock VP website it says that Vice President Selina Meyer had been the Senator from Maryland (sidenote that Julia Louis Dreyfuss’ Elaine character was also from Maryland). In fact the only Maryland VP was Spiro Agnew who was very much the VP in that mold (Nixon despised him but found, found him politically useful, and had staffers sit on top of him to keep him in bounds.) But since then, VPs have been solid pros that have worked hard to serve their Presidents and generally done so successfully. It is tough to believe that an experienced Senator would prove so inept on the national stage (also, VPs have a sizable staff which should be capable of managing things pretty well.)
But what if we had had a VP Palin, who became a real problem for the President? In a sense that is what the show is about?
Again, I don’t have the energy to get into it here – but Palin was in over her head and based on her relationship with the McCain campaign she would have become a political problem for the administration. At the same time, in fairness, she had undeniable talent. She had real achievements as governor of Alaska and even get elected to the position isn’t exactly chopped liver (what have you been elected to lately?)
But kicking her out of the West Wing and formally boxing her out of policy would have led to some nasty leaks and exacted a high political cost. McCain would have had to be creative figuring ways to muzzle her without it coming out in public – too much. But I think that would have been a much darker show the HBO’s creation.