On this eve of the vice-presidential debate, it is appropriate to consider the office and its place in our government. The particulars on each of the candidates have been well documented, but the influence of the job itself, not so much.
This is a job that no one stoops to lobby for (at least publicly). Historians also tell us that VP candidates rarely affect the outcome of elections. John McCain is on the record with his disdain for the job, and Barak Obama bypassed the job without mention. So why should it even matter to us?
The short answer is that it remains a lever of power that voters can wield over a president, even one who has been elected to a second and final term. The fact of the matter is, under our system one of the ways that the people wield power is through their vote. We elect representatives empowered to conduct the national business on our behalf. Some of these are bound by more local, particular, interests and have to be re-elected at frequent intervals. While other representatives have a wider area of concern and have longer terms.
Presidents obviously fall into the latter category, but they still have to be elected. As such, they are forced to respond to the desires of voters. This power is largely diminished in a second term. Second-term president's cannot be re-elected and with this comes a large degree of freedom from the will of the people. Second-term presidents however, do typically look to the future and their legacy. Often, the work of securing this legacy is wrapped up in having an anointed successor elected to the presidency.
When the vice-presidency is occupied by an individual with no reasonable hope of ascending to the top job, there is no voice inside the White House that depends on public approval for continued political viability. Loosed from these bonds of political concern, presidents are then left to succeed or fail strictly on their own. This is a major lesson of the Bush/Cheney era. A lesson that is certainly among the most painful of the last eight years.
Had Cheney had any presidential ambitions of his own I can only imagine how different the handling of Iraq, Katrina, & the economy would have been.
One might wonder if it has to be the vice president though. Couldn't a President secure a legacy with another successor? Again, G.W. Bush would seem to be the case study. His brother Jeb clearly had an eye on the presidency, but this wasn't enough to avoid the succession of blunders of the last several years. Before we chalk this up to a Republican-only phenomenon, keep in mind that the combined political aspirations of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton couldn't (and, apparently, still can't) keep Bill in check.
Unfortunately, this is a lesson that seems completely lost on both of the current presidential candidates and one which may have to be learned all over again.