The Quandary of Being Vice President

June 10, 1988

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The qualities that make a good vice president do not necessarily make a good president. The ideal vice president—loyal, discreet, willing to stay in the background—may not be able to master the presidency. But a vice president who has strength, vision and leadership ability—qualities of a good president—may find the subordinate role intensely frustrating and may not be able to do it.

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The vice presidency's quadrennial season in the spotlight has arrived. For much of the time from now until the Republican and Democratic national conventions later this summer, political discussions are likely to focus on the two parties' choices for the nation's second-highest office. With their own presidential nominations firmly in hand. Vice President George Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis will be able to devote a major part of their attention to the selection of running mates. Campaign staffers and political pundits will endlessly debate which of the two lengthy lists of potential vice presidential nominees will bring the most electoral strength to their tickets. Because most observers predict an extremely close election, the final vice presidential choices will probably come down to sophisticated calculations of regional and ideological advantage.

The choices probably will not involve much consideration of what the running mate would actually do once he or she got elected. Throughout its history, the vice presidency has been better known as the target of jokes than as a significant position within the federal government. Other than the constitutional roles of presiding over the Senate and succeeding to the presidency in the event of the death, incapacity or ouster of the incumbent, the vice president has few obligatory duties and little real power other than what the chief executive chooses to give him.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Executive Powers and the Presidency
Feb. 24, 2006  Presidential Power
Nov. 15, 2002  Presidential Power
Feb. 02, 2001  The Bush Presidency
Jun. 20, 1997  Line-Item Veto
Jun. 14, 1996  First Ladies
Oct. 21, 1988  Dangers in Presidential Transitions
Jun. 10, 1988  The Quandary of Being Vice President
Jan. 06, 1984  Presidential Advisory Commissions
Jul. 28, 1978  Presidential Popularity
Feb. 13, 1976  Evaluating Presidential Performance
Dec. 12, 1975  Presidential Protection
Jul. 11, 1973  Presidential Reorganization
Mar. 07, 1973  Presidential Accountability
Sep. 24, 1971  Presidential Diplomacy
Nov. 11, 1970  Vice Presidency
Oct. 02, 1968  Presidential Power
Mar. 14, 1966  War Powers of the President
Nov. 23, 1960  Transfer of Executive Power
Apr. 04, 1956  Vice Presidency
Oct. 15, 1952  Change of Presidents
Jun. 09, 1950  President and Mid-Term Elections
Oct. 20, 1948  Federal Patronage
Mar. 24, 1948  The South and the Presidency
Dec. 05, 1947  Military Leaders and the Presidency
Apr. 16, 1947  Veto Power of the President
Sep. 20, 1945  Succession to the Presidency
Sep. 12, 1940  The War Powers of the President
Feb. 11, 1938  Emergency Powers of the President
Jan. 06, 1938  The Power to Declare War
Dec. 28, 1937  Extension of the Veto Power
Dec. 28, 1936  Limitation of the President's Tenure
Mar. 12, 1935  The President and the Congress
Dec. 16, 1932  The Veto Power of the President
May 28, 1931  Presidential Commissions
Oct. 23, 1928  Presidential Appointments and the Senate
Mar. 21, 1928  Business Conditions in Presidential Years
Jan. 20, 1927  The Monroe Doctrine
Mar. 18, 1925  The President's Power of Appointment
Sep. 10, 1923  The President's Position on Patronage
Powers and History of the Presidency