Edwards could play many roles in a Kerry administration
Edwards is also a quick study and nimble at translating complex issues into easy-to-understand sound bites. Senior Senate Democrats were so wowed by his debating skills, evident almost from the moment he arrived in 1999, that they gave him an important role during President Clinton's impeachment trial.
During his improbable presidential campaign, Edwards masterfully highlighted his personal story as the mill worker's son who went on to become a successful trial lawyer. Although the 51-year-old freshman senator carried only one state-South Carolina, where he was born-his aw-shucks manner and populist message made such a favorable impression that Democratic officials lobbied Kerry tenaciously to add Edwards to the ticket.
Edwards's attributes play well on the campaign trail, but they don't answer the question of what kind of vice president he would be. Would his transparent ambition make it difficult for him to easily fit into the No. 2 spot? How would Kerry, who has plenty of Washington experience after serving nearly 20 years in the Senate, deploy his veep? Are there lessons to be drawn from the relationships of other presidents and vice presidents that might apply to this duo?
Obviously, the president ultimately determines how large, or how inconsequential, the vice president's portfolio will be. In recent history, Dick Cheney and Al Gore played key roles in the Bush and Clinton administrations, respectively. But Kerry may or may not follow that pattern if he wins election to the White House in November.
"Although the expectation ... has certainly developed that the VP will have an integral role in an administration, the president still has plenty of discretion," said George C. Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A&M University and the editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly. "The VP has no serious constituency -- and Edwards has no organized constituency.... Just as presidents use secretaries of State in different ways, they can use the VP as they choose."
In the view of Charles O. Jones, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin, presidents should determine how to deploy their vice president based on this question: "What is it I need, and how can this person be helpful?"
That straightforward formulation leads to one immediate conclusion: Edwards's most obvious asset is his communications skills, an area in which Kerry has not distinguished himself during the presidential campaign. Having been a member of the insular Senate for so long, Kerry has a tendency to fall into a tedious "legi-speak" that works fine on the floors of Congress, but can leave voters confused. Edwards's folksy, homespun speaking style, on the other hand, plays well with his audiences. So perhaps Kerry might best use Edwards as a point man to galvanize support for the administration's programs around the country.
Senate Democrats repeatedly reiterated that theme during interviews this week, after Kerry selected Edwards as his running mate on July 6. A half-dozen Democratic senators emphasized the importance of Edwards's communications talents in selling Kerry's agenda beyond the Beltway, as well as on Capitol Hill. Edwards has an "easy rapport" with voters, said Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va. "They relate to him."
If Kerry decided to send his veep, in effect, out on the stump as the salesman-in-chief for his programs, Edwards's highly visible role would provide a striking contrast to Cheney's modus operandi in the Bush administration. Cheney has spent much of his time out of the spotlight and in undisclosed locations. In fact, Cheney appears to enjoy campaigning and mixing it up with constituents about as much as one might look forward to a visit to a urologist.
Tutoring the Chief
Some presidents have looked to their vice president to provide insight and advice about matters on which they themselves lack expertise. For example, after serving as governors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton weren't well schooled in the ways of Washington when they arrived at the White House. So they relied, to varying degrees, on their vice presidents, both of whom had plenty of federal experience.
Bush, a former Texas governor, looked to Cheney to provide guidance on a broad array of policies. Cheney had served as Defense secretary for Bush's father, as a House leader in the 1980s, and as White House chief of staff during the Ford administration. In the days following the 2001 terrorist attacks, Cheney became one of the most influential players in developing a plan to wage the war on terrorism.
In fact, Cheney's influence is so vast that no policy area is beyond his reach. It is indisputable that he is the most powerful vice president ever. "There's nobody who can do Cheney's role, because it's such an unusual -- even a bizarre -- role, including being mentor and tutor to the president," said Paul Light, director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution and the author of a 1983 book on vice presidential power. "I can't imagine this will be repeated in our political lifetime."
Gore, who had served in both the House and the Senate, was not nearly as powerful a vice president as Cheney is. Still, he played a significant role in acquainting Clinton, who had been governor of Arkansas, with how to wield power in Washington.
"Al Gore helped me a lot in the early days, encouraging me to keep making hard decisions and put them behind me, and giving me a continuing crash course in how Washington works," Clinton wrote in his recent autobiography, My Life. "Though we had a lot in common, we were very different, and the [private weekly] lunches kept us closer than we otherwise would have been in the Washington pressure cooker."
The Bush-Cheney and Clinton-Gore relationships contrast sharply with President Kennedy's dismissive treatment of Vice President Johnson in the early 1960s. Johnson, after serving as one of the most powerful Senate majority leaders in history, was all but humiliated as vice president, according to Mutual Contempt, a book by Jeff Shesol.
Larry O'Brien, Kennedy's liaison to Congress and a member of the so-called "Irish Mafia" of close confidants to the president, didn't bother to stop by Johnson's office even once to seek his advice during a two-year period. According to Shesol, Johnson privately fumed that Kennedy's legislative program was sinking because of "those kids ... from the White House [who] start yelling 'frog' at everybody [on Capitol Hill] and expect 'em to jump. They don't have any idea of how to get along, and they don't even know where the power is."
In the period between the LBJ era and Clinton's election in 1992, the experience of vice presidents varied. Jimmy Carter expanded the role of the office to give Walter Mondale, a former Minnesota senator, a hand in all key policy decisions. But neither George H.W. Bush, as vice president from 1981 until 1989, nor Dan Quayle, who succeeded Bush as vice president and served under him, were given such wide-ranging responsibilities.
Still, a number of presidential scholars, academics, and elected officials agree that it would be difficult for any president today to treat his vice president with the disdain that Kennedy did. "It would look small and insecure and call into question Kerry's judgment," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
And, given the far more aggressive role of today's media, a president who dissed his vice president would pay a political price. "It's a lot harder to lock a vice president away in the East Wing these days," said Ken Collier, professor of political science at Stephen F. Austin State University. "Reporters will notice the first person to play a smaller role than the vice president that preceded him or her. I'd hate to be the first VP to be moved out of the West Wing."
Even so, if Kerry doesn't forge a comfortable working relationship with Edwards, he could find subtle ways to make his veep look occupied, while also keeping him away from the klieg lights. "The vice president can be on the president's schedule, but it will be hard to tell whether the VP is just taking up space or having a real impact on decisions," Collier added.
Before Kerry settled on a running mate, a number of stories in the media suggested that the personal chemistry between him and Edwards was lousy. The bad blood was said to stem from several dustups during the primaries. The 60-year-old Kerry, who has devoted much of his career to public service, gave the impression that he viewed Edwards as an upstart politician of overweening ambition who had not paid his dues.
In the coming months, Edwards will have time to repair any ill will by relentlessly showcasing his total commitment to Kerry. In the view of numerous observers, Edwards must demonstrate his loyalty and downplay his own interests, always keeping in mind that he's occupying the No. 2 spot on a two-man ticket.
"Vice presidents are often judged on their willingness to submerge their own political ambition and their own identity," Light said. "They are tested ... to see just how loyal are they. That's especially important for someone who was a challenger. Edwards was not a slash-and-burn attacker. But it takes time to earn the trust of the president, and more important, the president's inner circle. A vice president spends every day learning the job."
Others suggest that the importance of personal chemistry at this very early stage of the campaign has been overblown. Clinton wrote that he didn't think he would select Gore as his running mate after initially meeting with him. "On the previous encounters, the chemistry between us had been correct, but not warm," Clinton said in his book.
But after spending more time with Gore, Clinton decided he liked him -- and he liked the idea of choosing another young Southerner to be on the ticket, to offer "a new generation of leadership." The selection proved, Clinton wrote, that "I was serious about taking the party and the country in a different direction."
Donald A. Baer, communications director in the Clinton White House, noted that Gore ultimately was given broad responsibilities that went beyond specific programs. "Gore was not only the senior-most adviser, but he was Clinton's go-to person on major projects," Baer said in an interview. "He was in every major meeting."
Baer said that Kerry and Edwards have a chance to pull off the same kind of partnership -- and that any lack of chemistry between them during the primary season will be inconsequential. "The most important thing will be whether their respective operating styles allow them to work constructively with one another," Baer said.
Indeed, Kerry's choice signals that he sees attributes in Edwards that more than offset whatever problems the two had during their primary battle. "The fact that Kerry set [those misgivings] aside is a good sign for their governing relationship," Mann said. "It shows self-confidence to pick someone with more political flair than he has. It shows that he won't keep Edwards under a rock.... He will make use of him."
Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who spent two days on the campaign trail with Kerry over the Fourth of July weekend, agreed. In an interview, Kind said he was struck that Kerry did not feel compelled to choose someone with a smaller charm quotient and who did not have presidential ambitions. "He's very comfortable about his campaign and is not afraid of being overshadowed" by Edwards, Kind said. "He had easier choices, [people] who would not overshadow him and would not be looking to their own future."
In fact, Kerry's determination to keep the vice presidential selection process secret, to avoid embarrassing those he didn't choose, is also instructive. Back in 2000, Kerry felt slighted when Gore did not select him as his running mate. Kerry found Gore's handling of the process unseemly, and was said to want to go the extra mile to make certain not to repeat it. Kerry's actions suggest that he has no desire to publicly embarrass or put down others near him, including his vice president.
When Clinton selected his running mate, the former president wrote in his book, he was moved in part by the fact that Gore "knew things I didn't." Gore had expertise that Clinton lacked on a range of issues, including national security, arms control, information technology, energy, and the environment. Clinton owned that while he "knew a lot about" economics, agriculture, crime, welfare, education, and health care, and "had a good grasp" of major foreign-policy issues, Gore provided balance in those other areas.
By contrast, one would be challenged to find a similar "balance" in knowledge of various policy areas between Kerry and Edwards. On the big issues of the day -- Iraq and national security -- Kerry, a decorated Vietnam vet and a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, undoubtedly would be the dominant decision maker in his administration.
Given Edwards's lack of foreign-policy experience, other than his work on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he likely would not emerge as a central player in this arena. The contrast with Cheney could not be greater, as Edwards would, quite likely, take a backseat to Kerry's principal foreign-policy advisers, including his secretaries of State and Defense and his national security adviser.
On the domestic agenda, Edwards has tackled several high-profile issues in the Senate, but Kerry also has plenty of knowledge in these areas. For example, Edwards was a leader in Senate negotiations over patients' rights legislation in 2001, but Kerry, as a presidential candidate, has a full-blown proposal of his own.
Still, it is noteworthy that then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., turned to Edwards to take the lead in negotiating a patients' rights measure with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., four years ago. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who was a major advocate for putting Edwards on the ticket, was also heavily involved in the effort.
The Senate ultimately passed that bipartisan legislation, which would have allowed patients to sue their health plans, in 2001, and the GOP-controlled House passed a narrower version. But further action was shelved because of partisan disagreements and because of the terrorist attacks later that year. Although the patients' rights bill faltered, an Edwards spokesman told National Journal last year that the senator considers it his greatest legislative accomplishment -- as well as a great disappointment.
Interest in patients' rights legislation has recently been renewed following a Supreme Court decision involving patient lawsuits. And the issue was a rallying point for Edwards during his presidential campaign, as he etched his theme of an America divided between the haves and the have-nots. Some Democrats suggest that Edwards would be a terrific point man on patients' rights legislation in a Kerry administration. "John Edwards would be a perfect person" to help frame the issue for Kerry, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said.
Edwards also worked with McCain on the campaign finance reform legislation that was enacted in 2002. And he collaborated with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, on legislation to bring down the cost of prescription drugs by removing barriers to competition from generics. That measure passed the Senate in 2002, but not the House.
Edwards's efforts at bipartisanship clearly made an impression on Kerry. "There's something else about John Edwards that is important to this campaign and our country at this critical time: I am determined that we reach out across party lines," Kerry said in naming Edwards to the ticket.
Given the likelihood that the next Congress will be very closely divided regardless of November's outcome, Kerry, if elected, would want to take advantage of whatever honeymoon he has to pass legislation. The new president would need Republican help to pull that off. One senior Senate GOP staffer predicted that Edwards "could be an emissary to moderate Senate Republicans.... He has credibility [with them] and he has charm -- he will have to use every bit of that charm."
Ultimately, much will depend on Kerry's appraisal of Edwards throughout the campaign and on how the two men's styles mesh -- or clash. Assuming that Edwards wins good reviews for helping Kerry connect with swing voters -- who could make all the difference on Election Day -- he might well be able to use the campaign experience as a springboard to high-profile assignments in the administration.
For now, Edwards has what he wants. Nobody has ever campaigned so openly, so forthrightly, to be picked for the No. 2 spot on a presidential ticket. In recent weeks, Edwards pursued a nonstop schedule of fundraising and campaign appearances for Kerry. He essentially sold himself onto the ticket. If he and Kerry prevail in November, it's a good bet that the formidable Edwards will also sell the president-elect on giving him a substantial role in the new administration.
Staff correspondents David Baumann, Carl Cannon, Richard E. Cohen, and Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report.