Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Palin: The Best We Can Hope For

By William Fisher

Political junkies follow poll numbers. So we know that there is more than a remote chance that John McCain might indeed become our next president. Which would make Sarah Palin our next vice president.

Just after her nomination, Governor Palin famously admitted that she had no idea what a vice president does all day. But later, she said the president would tap her for (1) energy issues (2) government reform, and (3) helping families with special needs children.

If these three tasks were specified by McCain, the nation could in for more trouble; she appears to be uniquely unqualified to take on any of them. If not, there may still be a shred of hope.

The hope is that McCain’s second most important executive decision will be to turn the clock back to a time when the first official in the line of presidential succession was, to quote FDR’s Veep, John Nance Garner, "not worth a bucket of warm piss.”

And, after eight years of Dick Cheney, this could be a brilliant idea, a real coup for the new president.

Even for John McCain, it could be a no-brainer. After all, the Constitution gives the vice president only two jobs: Taking the top job if the President becomes unable to serve due to death, resignation, or medical impairment, and acting as the presiding officer of the Senate. In that second role – which the Veep virtually never actually performs – his duties are to cast a vote in the event of a Senate deadlock and to preside over and certify the official vote count of the Electoral College.

Assuming McCain stays healthy, those tasks, plus maybe attending state funerals and otherwise becoming part of Washington’s ceremonial furniture, would be ideal for Sarah. She’d be ready!

And, for John McCain, this could be the beginning of The McCain Doctrine. It would be a wonderful example of preemptive damage control! And it would bolster his image of a guy deeply committed to “country first” by preserving our nation’s traditions.

For most of our history, that tradition has made the vice president largely invisible. John Adams, our first Veep, described it as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." When the Whig Party was looking for a vice president on Zachary Taylor's ticket in 1848, they approached Daniel Webster, who said of the offer, "I do not intend to be buried until I am dead." Vice President John C. Calhoun became the first vice president to resign the office, believing he would have more power as a senator.

For most of our history, vice presidents didn’t even attend meetings of the Cabinet. John Adams attended on in 1791, but after that no vice president did so until Thomas Marshall stood in for Woodrow Wilson while the president traveled to Europe in 1918 and 1919. Warren Harding’s vice president, Charles G. Dawes, was uninvited to the Cabinet Room after he opined that "the precedent might prove injurious to the country." Ditto Charles Curtis, Herbert Hoover’s Veep.

Roosevelt maintained the tradition. He kept his last vice president, Harry Truman, totally in the dark about all war and postwar issues, including the atomic bomb, leading Truman to describe the job of the vice president as going to weddings and funerals.

It was not until Richard Nixon became Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president that the office began to remotely resemble today’s iteration. Eisenhower ordered Nixon to preside at Cabinet meetings in his absence. Nixon also became the first vice president to temporarily assume control of the executive branch during Ike’s three illnesses.

Not until 1949 did Congress make the vice president one of four statutory members of the National Security Council. Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s second-in-command, was the first Veep to have an office in the West Wing of the White House. And George H. W. Bush, while highly experienced in legislative, intelligence and diplomatic affairs, maintained a very low profile in Ronald Reagan’s administration.

But since the Reagan years, the Veep’s office has grown in importance through successive administrations. Al Gore, for example, was a key advisor to Bill Clinton on matters of foreign policy and the environment.

And then came Darth Vader, with his White House within the White House, his Scooter Libbys and David Addingtons, his acolytes at the Justice and Defense Departments, his skills as the ultimate Washington out-manouverer, and hence his outsize influence on the rookie Governor of Texas.

But John McCain is fond of projecting himself as his own man. Maverick, you know. So it would be a credible part of his narrative – and well within his powers -- to cede no authority whatever to Vice President Palin.

In which case, she could dutifully take up residence at Number One Observatory Circle, along with the First Dude and their kids, and perhaps even install a tanning bed.

Doubtless, Sarah would be Ready on Day One to start conspiring to use the Veep’s office as her way to build a bridge to somewhere. But that might take a year or so.

Meanwhile, the Republic would be safer.

And that’s the best we can hope for.