What is the number one job of the Vice President of the United States?
In the words of Governor Mitt Romney, when introducing his pick for vice president last Saturday [August 11], it is to be "the next president of the United States, Paul Ryan!"
Aside from the possibility of becoming the next president, Senator Bob Dole described the other tasks of the vice-presidency as merely "indoor work with no heavy lifting."
Vice President John Nance "Cactus Jack" Garner of Texas (1933-41) said, in his most erudite Texas-speak, that the vice-presidency was "not worth a bucket of warm piss."
Nonetheless, it's no joking matter when it falls to the vice president to assume his most awesome and highest responsibility, and he or she instantly becomes "the next president of the United States" for real.
Nor is this just a theoretical possibility, sufficiently unlikely to warrant playing the odds and taking the risk that an unqualified vice president will never have to take on those responsibilities. Nine of our vice presidents have become president through the death, resignation or impeachment of the president. That's nine out of 44; over 20 percent.
As I wrote when evaluating Governor Mitt Romney's qualifications, "Why Mitt Romney?" March 22, 2012,
In 2007-08, as the candidates were touting their "experience" as qualifying them to be president, I gave some thought to "Just what is the experience that would qualify someone to be president?" Here's an abbreviated excerpt from an op ed column I wrote on the subject at that time:Another example of a Republican with Richardson's range of experience is former President George H.W. Bush. Not only did he come to the job with eight years experience as vice president, he had also been a member of the House of Representatives, an ambassador to the United Nations and envoy to China, director of the CIA, and someone with experience in both the oil and banking business. "George H.W. Bush", Wikipedia.org.There’s no perfect, qualifying “experience.” But two things can help.Nicholas Johnson, "Politics: Assessing Candidates' 'Experience,'" The Gazette, March 30, 2008, p. A9, embedded in blog, with links to many more items, in "Gazette Op Ed: Candidates' 'Experience,'" March 30, 2008 ("Compare these candidates’ 'experience' with that of Gov. Bill Richardson: 15 years’ legislative experience in the U.S. House, understanding of state government from two terms as governor and of federal government from [his service as Secretary of] the Department of Energy, the significant administrative experience as a governor and cabinet secretary and the international perspective of a former U.N. ambassador. His international accomplishments, including successful hostage negotiations with Saddam Hussein and others, inspired five Nobel Peace Prize nominations.")
One is experience at administering large institutions: a federal cabinet-level department, a state government, military branch, major university or corporation.
The other is the understanding and rapport earned by having worked in institutions with which a president must relate: city, county and state government; the federal executive, legislative, judicial and administrative branches; international organizations and embassies; labor unions and Wall Street, among others.
By these standards both Democrats [Senators Clinton and Obama] and Sen. John McCain are unimpressive.
At that time Governor Bill Richardson came the closest to the range of experiences I thought useful. Mitt Romney doesn't rank that high, given his relative lack of experience with the House, Senate, White House, and Cabinet positions. And his work with the Olympics, while useful, is not exactly the same as the State Department, an ambassadorship, or the United Nations, World Bank, IMF or other international organization. But he has been a governor (and in a state where he had to work with Democrats), which comes the closest to any training we have for the presidency, he's administered other large institutions (Bain; the Olympics; this year's campaign), and certainly has ties with Wall Street and the business community.
(In that evaluation of Romney, I made clear that although his positions on most major issues differed from mine, he also had strengths, notwithstanding his lack of experiences that would be useful for a president to have had (see, e.g., "Romney as Ambassador in Chief," July 31, 2012):
As I've learned more about Romney, I've become increasingly impressed with his smarts, education, experience, accomplishments, commitment to public service, and obvious managerial ability in running a presidential campaign. Today I would say of him (as I said earlier  about Jon Huntsman), Mitt Romney is much, much better than just the "least worst Republican." . . .I mention this simply to make the point that my effort to evaluate Paul Ryan's qualifications is not an effort to put down the Romney-Ryan ticket, any more than my finding both Senators Clinton and Obama to be short on experience (when at least Clinton was claiming she had it) was an effort to put down the Democratic Party's effort to elect a president.
I may well be wrong, but what others see as flip-flopping I see as managerial pragmatism. . . . Some others are troubled by his Mormon religion. I see it as a positive. . . . Whether you call it religion, ethics, or morality, I think it useful for individuals (and the communities in which they live) to carry a moral compass that they check for directions from time to time. Maybe it's no more than a hunch, but Romney seems to have that. . . .
Nor do I find his seeming inability to speak the language of ordinary Americans disqualifying -- that his tie to NASCAR fans is that he knows a number of folks who own race teams, his appeal to UAW members is that his wife has two Cadillac cars . . .. I find such unscripted comments almost charming in an odd sort of way. . . . What I see in Romney is a bright, well informed, analytical, hard working, focused, pragmatic, problem-solving manager.
I will also note, in that connection, that then-Senator Biden did not score much better on my experience scale in 2008 than did Senators Clinton, McCain, and Obama. See "Joe Biden," Wikipedia.org; "It's Biden -- for 'Experience'?" August 23, 2008.
In that Joe Biden blog entry there is a point that bears repeating with regard to Paul Ryan:
I don't think a breadth of experience is a prerequisite to being president (or vice president). Someone can be perfectly well qualified to be president without it. Few of our presidents have had the breadth of experience of, say, President George H.W. Bush (the current president's father), or New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. And many have done quite well without it.By now, of course, Vice President Joe Biden has had four years of experience serving as vice president. It's hard to get any better "experience" than that. So, by now, he clearly has the edge on Paul Ryan in that department. (Similarly, Romney, today, scores better on the experience scale than Obama did in 2008. But by now, with four years' experience as president, President Obama clearly has the experience edge over Romney.)
All I am saying is that if all (or most of) what one has ever done is to be a member of the United States Senate [to which I would now add with regard to Ryan, "or House"], given the range of experience that would be helpful for a president to have had, it's a little silly to talk about how "qualified" they are for the job based on that very narrow and limited experience, regardless of how long they've done it.
Clearly, Senator Biden brings "foreign policy" experience [as Chair, Senate Foreign Relations Committee], with emphasis on "policy." He certainly has established relationships among many of the world's leaders. He's brighter, has better judgment, and is far more knowledgeable than Senator McCain on such matters. It's just that it's not the equivalent of having had responsibility for making the decisions, and administering the follow up, as Secretary of State or Defense, or even National Security Adviser to the President.
Paul Ryan's relative lack of experience is no more disqualifying for him in 2012 than it was for Joe Biden in 2008. It is, however, a negative, to be balanced against whatever positives one may perceive.
Let's examine the categories used in the past.
(1) "One is experience at administering large institutions: a federal cabinet-level department, a state government, military branch, major university or corporation." Ryan has spent his entire post-college 42-year life in politics, first as a staffer, and subsequently as a member of Congress (with some earlier successful forays into student politics). He has had no administrative or managerial experience running any large institution, let alone anything the size of the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government.
"The other is the understanding and rapport earned by having worked in institutions with which a president must relate: (2) city, county and state government; (3) the federal executive, legislative, judicial and administrative branches; (4) international organizations and embassies; the Pentagon, or national security organizations; (5) labor unions and Wall Street, among others."
Congressman Ryan's primary strength is his successful career in the U.S. House of Representatives, a group of 435 in which he rose to the top (as Chair, Budget Committee) primarily while in his thirties.
But (2) he does not have direct experience with the impact of the federal government on state and local government, in that he has never served as mayor or council member of a city, county supervisor, member of a state legislature or governor, or even school board member (so far as I know).
(3) He has had no experience heading, or even working in, the federal executive branch or administrative agencies, with direct knowledge of the impact of the White House and Congress on their work. He has not worked as a judge, or as a law clerk to one; as he is not a lawyer -- something I assume some will see as a great asset :>).
(4) Neither he nor Romney have the foreign relations experience of running, or even working in, the State Department, a foreign embassy as an ambassador, or the United Nations, World Bank, IMF or other international organization. (Romney illustrated the consequences of a president with a lack of foreign relations acumen during his recent trip to London, Israel and Poland. "Romney as Ambassador-in-Chief," July 31, 2012. Vice presidents are often called upon to provide some of our nation's outreach to other countries. Would Ryan have done any better than Romney?)
Neither has headed agencies of, or even worked inside, the Pentagon, CIA, NSA, or other organizations focused on national security. I believe (but have not confirmed) that neither even served in any way in the U.S. military.
(5) Romney clearly has useful ties to Wall Street and the business community generally. Ryan's ties to labor are a little more spotty. His family's business, Ryan Construction, benefits from the Davis-Bacon Act's requirement that federal construction projects pay workers the "prevailing wage." Unions like that. Overall, however, his votes against union members' interests have produced a 16% rating from the AFL-CIO. See, e.g., Laura Clawson, "Paul Ryan is with unions on one lone issue—the one connected to his family's business," Daily Kos, August 13, 2012.
So what is the answer to the question with which I began: "Is Ryan Ready to be President?" "Certainly not," we'd have to say, on the basis of his prior range of experience regarding those things that would be useful to a president. On the other hand, he is certainly not the first vice presidential candidate to have been lacking in that kind of experience. And at least some of them have turned out to be not only "qualified," but among our best presidents when their time came to be tested.