What Kaine or Pence Will Bring to the Vice Presidency

As the first governor on the job in almost half a century, either one of them will present new opportunities for the White House.
October 2016
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, left, and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (AP)
Donald F. Kettl
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
Former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Volcker Alliance and the Brookings Institution

In this wildly unpredictable election campaign, one prediction is certain to come true: The next vice president of the United States will be a former governor. What’s far less certain is what that will mean in the White House.

The vice presidency has attracted more disparaging quotes than any other job in American government. In 2012, writing on CNN.com, comedian Dean Obeidallah said that “being vice president is like being one of the lesser Kardashian sisters.” VPs get “paid great, treated like celebrities and have almost no responsibilities.”

Nor have the issues that governors care about been especially prominent in Washington lately. In the 1960s, the War on Poverty put state and local issues at center stage. The block grants of the 1970s changed their role but kept them central. But since then, the intergovernmental agenda has gradually been pushed off to the wings. So it’s worth asking whether having a governor in the second spot, a few steps away from the Oval Office, might make a difference. The question is historic -- it’s been 43 years since a governor has been vice president, and that ended badly with the resignation of Maryland’s Spiro Agnew as Richard Nixon’s VP.

In fact, the governor’s mansion hasn’t been a very good on-ramp to the vice presidency in recent memory. In the 68 years since America’s first post-World War II election, there have been just four governors who ran for the No. 2 spot before Mike Pence and Tim Kaine this year: Earl Warren, then the California governor, who lost with Thomas E. Dewey in 1948; Edmund S. Muskie, a former governor of Maine, who lost in 1968; Agnew, who came in ahead of Muskie that year; and Alaska’s Sarah Palin in 2008.

Of the 34 vice presidential candidates from 1948 through 2012, just six had significant state and/or local government experience of any kind, and just two of them won: Agnew (twice) and Hubert Humphrey, who was the mayor of Minneapolis before he entered the U.S. Senate. Before Kaine, the last person to run on a national ticket who had served as a mayor, governor and U.S. senator was Andrew Johnson in 1864. Before that, there was just one: DeWitt Clinton of New York, who built the Erie Canal.

It’s not so much that state and local government officials have played hard to get; it’s more that the vice presidency isn’t a job many politicians really want. When Calvin Coolidge was offered the chance to run in 1920, his wife Grace asked, “You’re not going to take it, are you?” Coolidge replied, in his characteristically clipped way, “I suppose I’ll have to.” (Though he did end up as president when Warren G. Harding died in 1923.)

It’s very different at the top of the ticket, where governors have had an inside track. Barack Obama, George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford have been the only presidents in the last 40 years without state electoral experience. Since 1901, former governors have held the White House nearly 60 percent of the time.

At the VP level, we know we’re about to get a departure from the recent past, but the direction and implications are anything but clear. Kaine is a deeply experienced Virginia politician, having risen from the Richmond City Council to the city’s mayoralty, and from there to lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. senator. Pence spent 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives before becoming governor in 2013. He is best known in his home state for staking out conservative positions that include increased funding for charter schools, restrictions on some abortion procedures and support for individuals seeking to deny service to LGBT individuals on religious grounds. Kaine won recognition for the way he steered Virginia through the 2008-2009 economic crisis and his aggressive response to the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007.

There’s always the possibility that the No. 2 spot will prove frustrating for an ex-governor used to making decisions and taking action. Going to funerals and, as Coolidge’s own VP Charles Dawes put it, arising “to check the morning’s newspaper as to the president’s health” wouldn’t be much fun. But there could be some interesting opportunities. Here are a few:

Chief operating officer. The last two administrations have been crippled by management crises: George W. Bush’s hobbled response to Hurricane Katrina and the fumbled launch of Obamacare. A President Clinton or Trump would get a big boost from an inner-circle adviser keeping a close eye on top presidential priorities and managing the inevitable administrative firefights.

Chief innovation officer. The federal government needs to get a lot better and a lot faster at stimulating fresh and creative thinking to solve our most difficult problems. Many of the biggest will be domestic ones, from improving the response to Zika-like outbreaks to making data systems more secure. There are deep pockets of serious work underway, but strong leadership from the top could bulldoze barriers to innovative breakthroughs.

Chief collaboration officer. Collaboration in government is often handicapped by the large, growing and tangled web of information connecting federal agencies with state and local governments. We talk about improving intergovernmental collaboration, but the language for doing that is data, and too often it’s more like a mutually incomprehensible tower of Babel. From reducing veterans’ homelessness to strengthening food safety, the new vice president could drive the transformation of national policy by fueling the ability of different governments to talk to each other.

One of FDR’s vice presidents, John N. Garner, famously said the job wasn’t “worth a bucket of warm spit” (or something a bit earthier). But both of our potential vice presidents have the background to make it a bucketload more valuable.