Why do well-established politicians want to be Vice President?

Is it solely because they hope to use it as a stepping stone to the Presidency? Because if that is the case, it seems like a plan more likely to fail than not. Only two former Vice Presidents (Nixon and the first Bush) have been elected President in the last 150 years. All of the other Vice Presidents that succeeded to the Presidency did so only because of the death or resignation of the President.

In the current election, Joe Biden has been a U.S. Senator since 1972. If Obama is elected in 2008, he will certainly run again as the incumbent in 2012. The earliest that Biden could run for President, then, is 2016, when he would be 74 years old (older than McCain in the 2008 election). Biden has a great deal of seniority in the Senate. Why would he give up such a powerful position for a chance to run for Vice President, a position famously characterized as “not worth a bucket of warm spit [piss]”?

Heck, one Vice President (Calhoun) actually resigned the position to take a seat in the Senate.

But many other politicians have given up successful political careers only to fizzle out as Vice President (the above-quoted Garner, Humphrey, Rockefeller, Mondale, Quayle, Gore, etc.).

So why do it?

It’s more of a position of power than it used to be. Hell Cheney even thinks that he is part of the Legislative branch. Don’t under estimate the possibility of death or resignation, I haven’t googled the numbers but 4 presidents have been assassinated and another 16 were attempted.


There’s no comparison between the office of VP today and in Garner’s day.

The position has actually become less powerful in the Senate, as the Majority Leader has taken over most of the non-ceremonial functions once performed by the VP as President of the Senate.

But it has become much more powerful within the executive branch. Modern presidential candidates hand-pick their running mates, consult with them frequently, and usually delegate significant responsibility to them in at least one area of the VP’s choosing. The position has become equivalent to the “Minister without Portfolio” in European cabinets.

A senior senator within the majority party still might have more power than the Vice President (it’s hard to compare–it’s a different kind of power), but then there are the intangibles. If he wins, Biden gets to sit behind the president at the State of the Union speech and be addressed as “Mister Vice President” for the rest of his life. Politicians have egos (duh), and these things matter.

You’re defining “fizzled out” as “failed to reach the presidency”. By that standard, the overwhelming majority of politicians fizzle out, whether they run for vice president or not. Humphrey, Mondale, and Gore probably wouldn’t even have won the presidential nomination without their service as VP–Humphrey failed in 1960, and Gore in 1988, before they had VP on their resume. Al Gore probably wouldn’t be winning Oscars and Nobel Prizes if he were just another former Senator, instead of former VP and near-President.

Eight of the 43 presidents died in office. Since William Henry Harrison was the first to die, and was the ninth president, that’s 8 of the last 35 presidents who died in office.

Them’s mighty good odds.

I’m pretty sure Biden doesn’t expect to become president.

Humphrey returned to the Senate. I’m not sure that counts as fizzling out. Mondale and Gore were nominated for the presidency. I’m not sure that counts as fizzling out either – if it does, then you might as well ask why people want to be the presidential nominee, because half the time their careers fizzle out.

It is a sinecure.

Worth fighting for, at any rate.

Really, each one will have a different reason. I can’t see Biden thinking that he’s an actual successor-possible to Obama after two terms. But in the short run (4-8 years) he can wield enormous power as VP on the terms that the two men seem to have worked out. No cite but I seem to recall Biden saying that instead of having a specific portfolio as VP he’ll be close adviser on all decisions in an Obama administration. That sure beats an endless parade of funerals and such that prior office holders have had.

So some take it for stepping stones, and some for a retirement package and some for policy purposes.

It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what the individual gets out of it. I’m at least partly convinced that Biden accepted Obama’s invitation because a) his presence on the ticket can help Obama become president (the (to me) mythical “experience” bugbear) and b) he has a chance to advise Obama on a wide range of issues and thinks that he, in this position, can be a net plus for the country.

There’s also an issue of legacy. Most former Senators get forgotten. Vice Presidents, even the relatively obscure ones, are remembered.

Some writer (sorry I can’t recall who) made the point a few months ago that, as the size of the Executive Branch has expanded, the VP’s job has become much more important. The presidency is just too big a job now to be effectively overseen by one dude. (Not just its importance, but the size and number of issues in the portfolio.) The VP’s power in the Administration is informal, but can be tremendous if the president keeps him close (as Obama and Biden appear to be – I believe Obama considered Biden and Kennedy to be his mentors in his early days in the Senate). Biden has been very clear that he is not running for “co-president,” as some suggested about Cheney during the 2000 campaign, but even in a subordinate role, given the wide expanse of the modern Executive Branch, the VP is in position to accomplish quite a lot.

Moreover, Biden, like many Americans, probably sees the potential for Obama to actually be a transformative force in our politics and government, and certainly as the best hope to change the direction the current dministration has steered us in so long. It’s a seductive idea to be a critical piece of that process. And while you have to expect he’s realistic about it, I think Biden probably does still have presidential aspirations of his own. He may or may not be the most attractive candidate for the Democratic nomination eight years from now, but he’ll certainly have a higher profile and, assuming a president Obama doesn’t have the failures of his predecessor (a reasonably safe assumption), a better one than he did as just another Democratic senator from New England.

Finally, let’s face it. Obama’s going to be our first black president. God forbid something should happen, and certainly Senator Biden isn’t rooting for that, but who knows what the future may bring? In such a situation, Biden sees two things: 1) the VP will become president, and 2) the new president is going to have tremendous challenges in dealing with that aftermath and in continuing Obama’s policy program. Biden has no shortage of ego – he probably thinks that there are rather few people who could steer the ship of state in such chaos better than he. (And if I might be allowed some editorial comment, I think he’s probably right about that.)


" All of the other Vice Presidents that succeeded to the Presidency did so only because of the death or resignation of the President."

Well, that’d help explain Palin’s reasoning.

What % of Senators made it to the Presidency?

It can be the steppingstone to the Presidency, or the capstone to a long career.

If it’s a stepping stone, it doesn’t matter whether you get the step by election or succession.

You’re running the numbers the wrong way. The correct question is: What proportion of our presidents served previously as vice presidents?

IIRC, three – Harding, Kennedy, and whoever wins this year.

I’m thinking that Biden accepted the offer in part because he felt it was impossible for a patriot to refuse. I think he would have felt terribll guilty if he turned Obama down, and Obama then offered the VP nom to another (worse) choice, and the ticket lost narrowly. Maybe this is more like “loyalty to party” than general patriotism, but I don’t know how much of a distinction that is anyway to a Democratic loyalist.

Deleware is part of New England now? When did that happen?

And there’s 100 (or so) more Senators than Veeps, which means Veep is a better steppingstone than Senator.

I guess I’m not much of a geographer. Well, we’ve got plenty of Democratic senators from the Mid-Atlantic, too.


Better than that if you look at things historically: there have been 1,897 senators (of which three have or will become Prez), and only 46 Veeps (of which two have become prez.) Given a 1-in-600 chance vs. a 1-in-23 chance, I know which odds I’d prefer.