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In the News

Kamala Harris as veep

Mike McCartney

5th January 2021

While the intention was to post a few blogs with recaps of developments in British politics last year, this is the second post on an American theme. But it’s not often that one comes across such a good newspaper article.

It even includes one of the best quotes about the office: not being ”worth a bucket of warm ____”.

If I was a Year 12 student I would be watching this one closely. The Vice President’s role in US government is one of the many paradoxes about politics in that country. On the one had the powers of the veep in constitutional terms are very limited, but at the same time they are said to be 'just a heartbeat from the presidency', with eight incumbents having died in office (four being assassinated, of course) – and vacating 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue before facing impeachment proceedings.

As John Adams, the nation’s first veep, said, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” In constitutional terms the VP has a very limited role. They oversee the casting of senatorial votes for the electoral college (which in most years is not a news story, but seems to be gathering momentum this time around), and in most years the power they have to cast a vote in a tie in the Senate wouldn’t matter, but if events in Georgia today go as opinion polls predict then Kamala Harris could be spending as much time in the Senate helping her boss as she has done representing California.

Historically, therefore, the role of VP has not been significant until recent decades, mirroring the growth in the size and scope of the roe of the executive branch. And this is where the unofficial dimensions of the office gets interesting. Al Gore as Bill Clinton’s deputy took a key role in environmental policy and reorganising government, Dick Cheney (as listeners of the Bush/Blair podcast I have frequently plugged will testify) was a driving force behind America’s intervention in Iraq. So we have seen the development of a 'dual presidency' or 'co-presidency' thesis. When it comes to the president-elect, Joe Biden used his much greater experience as a member of the Senate than Barack Obama in building bridges between both ends of the avenue.

So it will be fascinating to see what role Harris as VP plays. If Biden enters office with a 50-50 Senate she could well break the record held by John Adams of 29 tie-breaking votes. Thus the constitutional role comes into play. And what of her unofficial role? What does Harris have that Biden doesn’t? Well, think how she balances the ticket: she is young, energetic, and more to the left than Biden. So one suspects she will be deployed to exploit those strengths by placating key parts of the Democrat coalition, especially with mid-terms less than two years away.

And then, the elephant in the room is the significance of the 25th Amendment.

This is the article. Definitely one worthy of a close read.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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