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Start Warming Up Those Buckets

With the much-vaunted vice presidential debate over, and neither Sarah Palin nor Joe Biden seen with bullet holes in her or his shoes, let's take a look at the self-described role of the vice president as outlined in debates.

Interrogator Hal Bruno, at the 1976 debate between Walter Mondale and Bob Dole, phrased it nicely:

Presidential candidates always promise that their vice president will play an important role. But it seldom turns out that way and they usually wind up as standby equipment, which is the way Vice President Rockefeller once described the job.

(And Dole responded, "It's indoor work and no heavy lifting.")

Thursday night, debate moderator (or monologue scheduler) Gwen Ifill held both candidates' feet to the fire about their dismissive remarks about the office both now seek. "Governor," she said to Palin, "you said in July that someone would have to explain to you exactly what it is the vice president does every day. You, Senator," she said as she faced Biden, "said you would not be vice president under any circumstances."

Palin, perhaps sensitive that some watching might take her flip comment at face value, answered:

Of course, we know what a vice president does. And that's not only to preside over the Senate and will take that position very seriously also. I'm thankful the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate and making sure that we are supportive of the president's policies and making sure too that our president understands what our strengths are.

She continued with the expectation that a leadership role in a McCain administration would come in seeking energy independence, reforming "government over all, and then working with families of children with special needs."

Biden, for his part, suggested a more collaborative model:

I would be the point person for the legislative initiatives in the United States Congress for our administration. I would also, when asked if I wanted a portfolio, my response was, no. But Barack Obama indicated to me he wanted me with him to help him govern. So every major decision he'll be making, I'll be sitting in the room to give my best advice. He's president, not me, I'll give my best advice.

That level of collaboration was hinted at in 2000 by Dick Cheney, the man who has most elevated the office from FDR running mate John Nance Garner's "a warm bucket of piss" to what some have described as a co-presidency.

I think the areas that I would bring are the things that Governor Bush emphasized when he picked me. That I have been White House Chief of Staff and ran the White House under President Ford. Spent 10 years in the House, eight of that in the leadership. Served as Secretary of Defense, and then had significant experience in the private sector. I think that where there are differences between Joe (Lieberman) and myself in terms of background and experience, I clearly have spent a lot of time in executive positions running large organizations both in private business as well as in government. And that is a set of qualifications that Governor Bush found attractive when he selected me. I'll leave it at that.

In short, he was poised to run another large organization — the United States. And four years later, when debating John Edwards, he seemed assured in that role:

Well, I think the important thing in picking a vice president probably varies from president to president. Different presidents approach it in different ways.

When George Bush asked me to sign on, it obviously wasn't because he was worried about carrying Wyoming. We got 70 percent of the vote in Wyoming, although those three electoral votes turned out to be pretty important last time around.

What he said he wanted me to do was to sign on because of my experience to be a member of the team, to help him govern, and that's exactly the way he's used me.

That assurance contrasted with the answer of Dan Quayle a dozen years earlier, when also having served one term in the job, he acknowledged, "But even as vice president you never know exactly what your role is going to be from time to time," and then shared some anecdotes about times George H. W. Bush wasn't available that he laid his hands on the till.

At that same function (perhaps best remembered as the debate in which Ross Perot's running mate, Jim Stockdale, asked, "Who am I? Why am I here?"), Al Gore sketched out a role that was short on understudy and long on collaboration:

Discussions of the vice presidency tend sometimes to focus on the crisis during which a vice president is thrust into the Oval Office, and indeed, one-third of the vice presidents who have served have been moved into the White House.

But the teamwork and partnership beforehand — and hopefully that situation never happens — how you work together is critically important.

And now we'll conclude with 1976 and Mondale's vision for his job, a vision that melds both Palin's and Biden's putative roles:

The problems that our country faces are so great that a very strong role is required of the vice president and of all federal officials. I've discussed this matter extensively with Governor Carter and as vice president I would have such a substantial role in both domestic and foreign policy. I would work with the president, for example, in this long overdue effort to basically restructure and reorganize the federal government.

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