Vice President Gore: Not Second Fiddle

August 01, 1993|By MICHAEL NELSON

Vice President Albert Gore has not secured the "full partnership" in the presidency that Bill Clinton publicly pledged to him during last year's election campaign. Nor has he received any of the promised long-term executive assignments in the Clinton administration, such as technology czar and leader in "rebuilding a good working relationship between the executive branch and the legislative branch."

Comedians have traded in their Dan-Quayle-is-a-lightweight jokes for Al-Gore-is-a-stiff jokes. ("I tell you," said Jay Leno in one monologue, "If there was an energy tax on people, Gore would be getting a refund.") Add to all that Mr. Gore's long-standing independent political style and his unslaked ambition to be president (he ran, unsuccessfully, for the Democratic nomination 1988) and you have a formula for frustration in the West Wing of the White House.

Not.

In fact, Mr. Gore is well on his way to becoming the most successful -- and perhaps, at times, even the most contented -- vice president in history. His experience in the office has turned out to be much different from what he originally expected, but also better.

Political scientists who study the presidency and the vice presidency recognized from the beginning that any hope for a "co-presidency" between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore inevitably would founder on Article II of the Constitution, leading only to tension, disappointment, and failure for all concerned.

The first sentence of Article II states clearly, "The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America." A fair translation of this sentence -- and of the list of enumerated executive powers, all of them assigned to the president, that follows -- is: "Presidents don't have partners in the executive branch, only subordinates.`

Scholars also understood the inherent problems of assigning ongoing executive responsibilities to the vice president. The unhappy experiences of the only two vice presidents to be granted such authority -- Henry A. Wallace as head of the Board of Economic Warfare in the early 1940s and Nelson A. Rockefeller as chair of the Domestic Council in the mid-1970s -- inevitably involved conflicts with the departments and agencies that had statutory powers in these areas. The conflicts were awkward for the president (Franklin D. Roosevelt in Mr. Wallace's case, Gerald R. Ford in Mr. Rockefeller's) because the vice president is a constitutional officer who cannot be dismissed or disciplined.

During the transition period, Mr. Gore studied the political science models of the vice presidency. He also talked with Mr. Quayle and former Vice President Walter F. Mondale to gain the benefit of their experiences in the Bush and Carter administrations, respectively.

Based on what he learned, Mr. Gore decided that the most successful position that he could assume in the Clinton White House was "that of a general adviser to the president" who, on occasion, takes on a specific short-term executive assignment.

In adopting that position, Mr. Gore was standing on his predecessors' shoulders. The role and resources of the vice presidency have grown in recent years to such an extent that the office hasbecome, in political science parlance, "institutionalized."

The vice presidency is significantly grander and more complex than in the past; it now enjoys a large and professional staff, a West Wing office, a separate line item in the executive budget, even an official residence and an impressive seal of office.

The vice presidency also has become institutionalized in the broader sense that more vice presidential activities now are taken for granted. These include, in addition to the vice president's constitutional powers to preside over the Senate and cast tie-breaking votes: regular private meetings with the president, membership on the National Security Council, full intelligence briefings, public advocacy of the president's party and programs, diplomatic missions, access to the papers that cross the president's desk, attendance at cabinet and Oval Office meetings, and congressional and other liaison activities.

Here is how Mr. Gore has performed some of these roles during his first half-year in office:

* Senate leadership.

Abandoning the aloof, independent style that marked his eight-year career as a senator from Tennessee, Mr. Gore has become a major conduit of advice, information, persuasion and political pressure from the White House to the Capitol and back again. The one tie-breaking vote he has cast was crucial; on June 25, he gave the president's budget a 50-49 victory in the Senate.

* Foreign policy.

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