When Al Gore became vice president, legendary scholar Richard Neustadt — one of Gore’s former professors — sent him a memo with advice. One sentence stuck with me: “The White House staff lives in the present, the VP’s staff in the future.”
Other than presiding over the Senate and breaking its ties, the Constitution gives the vice president only one duty: wait. It would be inhuman to expect anyone ambitious enough to become vice president to undertake that duty passively. It would be irresponsible for any vice president not to devote some time to thinking about “what if.” But it has been taboo for the vice president to use his rectangular office in the West Wing for such “future”-oriented activities in a way that casts a shadow over the “present” activities in the oval-shaped one down the hall.
Thus, reports that Vice President Pence is going beyond mere “active waiting,” to making moves to position himself to run if President Trump does not seek reelection, have created controversy. Though the vice president’s office has denied that any conclusions should be drawn from his reported actions, it has not disputed many of the specifics, including a trip to Iowa, meetings with major donors and establishing a political action committee. In the ensuing hoopla, Pence has been portrayed as gauchely overeager, like a diner in a fancy restaurant leaning over and asking a stranger, “Are you going to finish that?”
As the only former chief of staff to two vice presidents, I think this reaction has been misguided in two critical respects.
First, what Pence is doing is not beyond the pale for an ambitious vice president. While the last two sitting vice presidents to run for president — George H.W. Bush and Al Gore — were a bit more discreet, they nonetheless began politicking with party insiders, donors and early-primary-state muckety-mucks from their earliest days in office. Even during Bill Clinton’s first term, it was hard to find an Iowa county chair, New Hampshire legislator or DNC finance committee member who had not gotten a birthday call from Gore. Bush’s handwritten notes to political insiders were legendary and ubiquitous.