WASHINGTON – Mike Pence led the coronavirus task force only to be constantly overruled by the White House. Al Gore's efforts to “reinvent government" were largely forgotten during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Dan Quayle's revamping of space policy never got much notice to begin with.
For decades, the job of a vice president was to try to stay relevant, to avoid being viewed, in the words of one occupant of the post, as “standby equipment." But in recent administrations, the seconds-in-command have increasingly been deputized with special policy assignments that add some weight — and political risk — to the job.
That's likely to be the case for Vice President Kamala Harris, who this week was named the new point person on immigration. The job comes as President Joe Biden is rolling back four years of stringent policies enacted by his predecessor and contending with intensifying Republican criticism over the increased flow of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It’s usually a ceremonial role. This is definitely not a ceremonial task,” said Nina Rees, a former deputy assistant for domestic policy to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Harris' team has clarified that the vice president does not own all of immigration policy. She will be focused on the diplomatic side, working with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to try to stop the flow of migrants from those countries, and not on the difficult task of deciding who is let into the U.S., where they are housed and what to do with the children who arrive without their parents.
"The vice president is not doing the border,” Harris spokeswoman Symone Sanders said.
Still, Harris' project is central to Biden's argument that he'll succeed in restoring American influence and credibility abroad and making the immigration process more humane.
“It's important for the administration to succeed in this,” said Elaine Kamarck, who helped Gore lead the effort to overhaul and streamline government. “If you want to get to the source of the problem at the border, you’ve got to go into these countries and you’ve got to use American clout in any way you have it.”
Now a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, Kamarck is author of the book “Picking the Vice President," which argues that, starting with Gore, vice presidents have effectively formed governing “partnerships” with the president. That continued with Cheney — who had a hand in nearly everything George W. Bush's White House did — and Biden, who brought a deep knowledge of Capitol Hill and foreign policy when he joined Barack Obama's administration.
Kamarck's argument bucks the traditional wisdom, which says if a vice president does well on thorny issues, more credit goes to the president and, if not, it gives the president some political cover.
The matter of who gets praise, or blame, is even trickier when it's clear the vice president has White House aspirations.
That's an especially strong dynamic in the Biden White House. Harris' presidential ambitious are clear — she already ran unsuccessfully against Biden last year — and Biden's future is perhaps cloudier. The 78-year-old president said this week that “ My plan is to run reelection ” but later added, “I’ve never been able to plan four-and-a-half, three-and-a-half years ahead for certain."
“There’s very little that compares to the experience of being in a White House and heading a major issue, spending time getting to know the main players, getting media attention," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "If she can figure out a way to do this — whether it's 2024 or 2028 — it becomes part of her portfolio."
That, though, could also be a big ‘if.’ Democratic White Houses have for decades been confounded by border policy, as encapsulated by Obama. His administration deported a record number of people in the country illegally, but, late in his term, took unprecedented steps to provide legal protections for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
“It is a huge problem on many different levels, both humanitarian and health and security,” said Ray Sullivan, a Texas-based Republican strategist. “I also think it cuts across political lines. Folks from all political persuasions can look at the border crisis and think something’s not working right at all.”
John Adams once bemoaned the vice presidency as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived." Gerald Ford, who spent only eight months as vice president before succeeding Richard Nixon, was so miserable that he urged Cheney not to take the job under Bush.
Even Biden — though he used his eight years as vice president to help the Obama White House draw down U.S. troops in Iraq and oversee implementation of federal stimulus in response to the Great Recession — once noted that “Ben Franklin, when the Constitution was written, said ‘we should refer to the vice president as ’his superfluous excellency.’”
Walter Mondale served as vice president to Jimmy Carter and wrote a 1976 memo that is credited with helping to redefine the office. Until then, he said, the vice president had largely been viewed as “standby equipment.”
Mondale also pushed for and became the first vice president to have an office in the West Wing of the White House and a sizeable staff. His memo argued that the vice president should be a “general adviser” to the president rather than tackle specific tasks — advice Biden isn't following by turning to Harris on such a singular and politically important problem.
Cheney, who famously headed Bush's vice presidential search team before recommending himself for the job, perhaps best embodied the role of chief adviser. He helped shape the administration's decision to invade Iraq and overhaul national security laws, while also promoting environmental regulations that were more favorable to energy and industry interests and dramatically expanding the powers of the presidency and the executive branch.
Vice presidents finding themselves in thankless positions still remains more common than not, though. Confronting the outbreak of a virus he'd continue to insist would magically vanish, Donald Trump turned to Pence. But Trump repeatedly seized back the spotlight with nearly daily press briefings and eventually disbanded the task force altogether.
After Quayle worked on space issues, Gore helped lead environmental and technology projects for Bill Clinton but is also remembered for heading a task force to overhaul government. That job took Gore into the bureaucratic weeds. He delivered speeches on how agencies should write their rules, explaining that “means of egress” should be “exit routes.”
“Short is better than long. Active is better than passive," Gore said in 1998 at the National Small Business Week Awards.
But Kamarck said the effort also allowed him to take a lead role in a vast array of issues — from procurement to immigration to housing policy to helping set airline safety standards after a major crash. Gore's work shrinking the federal government became a centerpiece of Clinton's successful 1996 reelection campaign, she said, though rifts that formed between the two after the Lewinsky scandal troubled the 2000 race.
“What if Monica Lewinsky had never happened, what if there hadn't been an impeachment over this? My guess is that Clinton would have been out there touting Gore, touting reinventing government,” Kamarck said. “It would have been a big deal.”