Just the man for a diminished vice presidency

Joe Biden said yesterday that he intends to “restore the balance” in power between the presidency and the vice presidency. Biden was referring to the fact that Vice President Cheney was highly influential during the Bush years.

Cheney’s influence stemmed from his stature (former White House Chief of Staff, former Secretary of Defense, etc.), from his command of the issues (even arch-critic Barton Gellman of the Washington Post acknowledges this point), and from the president’s perception of the quality of Cheney’s counsel. There was no “balance of power” issue. President Bush retained the power at all times to accept or reject Cheney’s advice, and seems to have exercised his power to reject it with increased frequency during his second term.

Biden, then, is out-to-lunch is his characterization of the issue.

But Biden is quite correct in believing that his vice presidency will be altogether different from Cheney’s. Biden lacks the stature, the issue mastery, and the intellect appreciably to influence the new president. As Cheney suggested in a recent interview, Biden is just the man to “diminish” the role of the vice president. Cheney was, on merit, first among Bush’s advisors; Biden figures, on merit, to be far down the list.

How far up the list of advisors the vice president should rank depends, of course, on the vice president. Other things being equal, though, there’s a good case that the vice president should rank high. Unlike a Rahm Emanuel or a Bob Haldeman, the vice president is elected by the American people. And prior to being elected, the vice president is vetted by the public through a process that includes a speech to the national convention, press scrutiny (at least in the case of a Republican), and a debate.

In sum, the current vice president’s role as first among advisors to the president would be worth preserving if we had an incoming vice president who merited that role.

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