9. Oktober 2016

The American Vice Presidency: The Most Powerful “Backbench” on Earth?

The position of the vice president seems to nowadays be more important than ever before. The vice president serves as a key political and policy adviser of the American president as well as an assistant governing the nation. That makes a careful examination of the two competing vice presidential candidates indispensable.

A comment by Jasmin Gabel und Kaloyan Halachev


Beyond Master of Ceremonies

Until the 1970s, most elected vice presidents had an almost non-existing scope of responsibilities apart from representative duties. The founding fathers such as Hugh Williamson of North Carolina or Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts would not perceive the vice president as a key political actor. Its notorious lack of significance for political affairs was unambiguously manifested in the practice that the presidential nominees usually used to delegate the selection of their vice presidents to political party advisors.

The negligible role of the vice president in politics has even caused an ambitious politician like the former American Secretary of State Daniel Webster to turn down a respective Whig Party nomination in 1848: “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead”, he said once. After World War II however, a new agenda for the vice presidency was promoted, which set an end of the “rather off-handed attitude” towards the running mates of the US-presidents. As a result, “during the 20th Century, the focus of the vice presidency shifted dramatically from being mainly a legislative position to a predominately executive post”.

According to the current vice president Joe Biden, the office has increased its importance due to the “breadth and scope of the responsibility an American president has”, which makes a vice president necessary, not to say even indispensable, “to handle serious assignment, just because the president’s plate is so very full”. Hence, the role of the vice president has moved beyond the initial conception of the founding fathers of a ceremonial backbencher. That’s why the question about the officer in charge who is “a heartbeat away” from the leadership of the country, has become an issue of serious political concerns and a benchmark of a prospective president’s responsibility.

Tim Kaine: Liberal, Hawkish, Democratic

Senator Tim Kaine took over the senatorial seat for the state of Virginia in 2013 after his democratic predecessor Jim Webb announced he would not be seeking a second term. Kaine was hand picked by President Obama to run for the senate seat after serving as his pick for DNC Chairman. Previously, Mr. Kaine was among Obama’s shortlist of Vice-Presidential picks in 2008 after throwing his support behind the young Senator from Illinois during the primaries, opposing his now running-mate Clinton.

Despite their strong and longstanding ties, Kaine became a loud critic of President Obamas’ Syria policy. In April 2015, the senator wrote a letter to the president voicing his partiality towards establishing a no-fly zone in Syria a point that has been reiterated during the campaign by both Clinton and him, and stands in stark contrast to the philosophy of the Obama administration.

He further called the US strategy in Syria “ a joke” and said that the US “shares blame with other world powers for failing to address Syria, where a long-running civil war has spurred a mass migration from the country.” In his opinion US involvement in Syria had to be increased lest the operation be turned into the Myth of Sisyphus. But Kaine has since changed his tone, as American engagement in the region grew.

While these statements criticised Obamas strategy, they match Hillary Clintons more hawkish approach towards Syria. Her approach is to focus on taking out the ISIL leadership, combine forces with allies, share intelligence and putting diplomatic efforts first. But she has made clear that if necessary she will put boots on the ground. Something, Obama has adamantly tried to stay away from.

His Pet Project

However Kaines’ biggest project in the Senate was his proposal of a new authorisation of the use of military force or AUMF. At the moment, the war against ISIL in Syria and Iraq is fought under the auspice of the AUMF of 2001 declared against al-Qaida and affiliates (a term that remains loosely defined) and the AUMF from 2002 against Iraq. The Obama Administration views these authorisation bills as sufficient legal frameworks for the executive to engage in Syria and Iraq. Lawmakers are split on whether they agree with the administrations legal assessment. And a gridlocked Senate, afraid of appearing divided on a topic as sensitive as war, decided not to vote on a new AUMF. Thus, Kaines’ AUMF proposal, which he co-authored with Sen. Jeffrey Flake (R-AZ) never even made it to the congressional floor. If elected vice president, it is likely that he will continue to push this topic.

Clinton has thus far appeared to be stuck somewhere in the middle. While in agreement with Obama’s executive authority, she would also be open to a new AUMF if passed by congress.

Team Clinton-Kaine 2016?

Under the Clinton presidency, we are going to see the US go back to a more involved, more hawkish military presence in the Middle East. Clinton is very open about her philosophy of smart power, balancing the involvement of diplomatic efforts with humanitarian aid and military force. Her vice president would most likely continue to push for a new AUMF. The likelihood of which of course depends on the make-up of the new Congress.

As mentioned, both Kaine and Clinton strongly favour a no-fly zone an aspect that has thus far received remarkably little attention although it would drastically change the involvement of the US in the current theater of war in Syria. A no-fly zone requires a vast increase in troops, including ground troops that regulate the flow of people in and out of the humanitarian zone. Most critically however, it could potentially lead to the US shooting down Russian planes should Russia decide not to acknowledge the establishment of such a safe zone.

Mike Pence: a Christian, a Conservative and a Republican

The elected governor of Indiana is a proud representative of the conservative wing in the Republican Party. Cultivating a reputation of an ambitious and successful “underdog”, he never misses an opportunity to inform the publicity about his “small-town” identity and his middle-class origin which couldn’t more contrast with Trump’s background who famously started his business with the help of his father’s “small” loan of $1 Million. Nevertheless, the two of them are united in their formidable determination to run for the highest political offices in the country.

As a devout evangelical Christian, Pence made a name of himself as a consequential and determined opponent to the liberalisation of family law by favouring pro-adoption and non-abortion alternatives. In 2015, he displayed little appreciation for legal protection of non-traditional sexual identities by signing a religious freedom bill that granted legal protections to Indiana business owners who due to religious concerns refused to participate in same-sex weddings. Due to several protests, the law was repealed.

The Grand Simplificateur(s)

What is the ultimate triumph for a grand simplificateur? A plain talk about the real world in which progress may appear as a regress. According to Mike Pence, the American military power needs to be rebuilt; American regional dominance to be re-established; the nuclear-deal with Iran revisited and Russia deterred by the sheer demonstration and articulation of powerful leadership. In his views, efforts to reset bilateral relationships with Russia are seen as obsolete. Syria is a region in need of a strong American leadership, in order to “protect vulnerable citizens and 100,000 children in Aleppo”.

At the same time, Pence does not consider the US strong enough to deal with the Syrian refugee program of the UN. Moreover, he was very concerned that the protection of “vulnerable citizens” and Syrian children might pose incalculable risks to the US national security.

No Unity in Mind

Given the fact that Trump presented a foreign policy strategy aiming at less US involvement in the world, we have all reasons to conclude that the presidential campaign of Trump & Pence has finally reached a status described by George Orwell in his legendary novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” as doublethink. It is a state of mind and mode of behaviour characterised by “knowing and […] not knowing; to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, […] to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself”.

As a consequence, even silence conveys more meaning than the slippery, imprecise, ambiguous, dissembling, and inconclusive superficiality of words. But that does not necessarily prevent us from understanding the how and the why of the current electoral campaign.


The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180. Image: http://bit.ly/29lFTGx.

Jasmin Gabel

Jasmin Gabel (25) has a degree in American Studies from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and is now studying Intercultural Communication at Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder) and Adam-Mickiewicz-University Posznan. She is involved with the Polis-Program Peace & Security.


Kaloyan Halachev

Kaloyan Halachev is a Master student in sociology at Humboldt University Berlin. His area of focus is transatlantic relationships and integration within the EU.


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