Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Mommy, what does the Vice-President do?

I was looking for the full “Hardball” interview with Representative Michele Bachmann and while searching YouTube I found an interview Chris Matthews did with Bill Maher on October 21. Matthews began by asking Maher about Bachmann but before Maher could get his entire answer out, Matthews said

Can I cue you up another one? Here’s something fresh from today, fresh from the world of 2008 politics. This is the Vice-Presidential nominee of the Republican Party talking about her notion of what the Vice-Presidency holds for her.

He then proceeded to play a clip of an interview Governor Palin did with station KUSA in Colorado. Here’s a transcript of the clip Matthews played:

A Vice-President has a really great job because not only are they there to support the President’s agenda - they’re like the team member, the teammate to that President - but also they’re in charge of the United States Senate so if they want to they can really get in there with the Senators and make a lot of good policy changes what will help make life better.

Matthews and Maher then had the following exchange (I’ve omitted the disbelieving nasal sounds):

Matthews: Wow! I heard this begin during the debate when her notion of the Vice-Presidency is she’s gonna run the United States Senate. I thought it was a formality to just break ties and sit up there. She says she’s gonna basically be in charge of the Senate, she’s gonna get through good policies, she’s gonna get in there and work. I guess she has to take a look at the Constitution before she, well, at least takes office.

Maher: Well that would involve reading, Chris. I wouldn’t hold your breath on that. I was just gonna say before you showed the second clip is what I’ve been hearing about this Congresswoman is that she’s the only person in public office who’s actually dumber than Palin but I don’t know. After I heard that clip that you just showed me, that’s a tossup. That’s a real Beavis and Butthead we’ve got there.

I got curious and did some poking around and found the Palin interview with KUSA on October 20, 2008, which runs 8 minutes and 13 seconds.. (Warning: Make sure your sound is turned OFF when you start this. There’s a brief ad before the interview that is nothing but incredibly loud static. Turn the sound back on when Palin appears.)

After watching the whole interview, I can report there are two problems with M&M’s take on Palin’s remarks. One is Constitutional, the other is contextual. Let’s take the Constitutional problem first.

The Constitution mentions the Vice-President in Article I which defines the Legislative branch of government and in Article II which defines the Executive branch of government. For our purposes, we need only be concerned with Article I. In Section 3 of this Article, we find the following:

The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.

The Senate shall chuse their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States.

As you can see, Palin was Constitutionally correct in saying the Vice-President is “in charge of the United States Senate.” During the Twentieth Century the involvement of the Vice-President in the normal activities of the Senate has waned but I don’t see any reason why the Vice-President could not - if she wanted to - “get in there with the Senators”. She would not be able to vote or debate but as anyone who has tried to get work done in a committee or meeting knows, the person who runs things can wield a lot of power if he - or she - so chooses.

Do modern Vice-Presidents mix it up with the Senate? No. According to the Senate Website:

The first two vice presidents, Adams and Jefferson, did much to shape the nature of the office, setting precedents that were followed by others. During most of the nineteenth century, the degree of influence and the role played within the Senate depended chiefly on the personality and inclinations of the individual involved. Some had great parliamentary skill and presided well, while others found the task boring, were incapable of maintaining order, or chose to spend most of their time away from Washington, leaving the duty to a president pro tempore. Some made an effort to preside fairly, while others used their position to promote the political agenda of the administration.

During the twentieth century, the role of the vice president has evolved into more of an executive branch position. Now, the vice president is usually seen as an integral part of a president's administration and presides over the Senate only on ceremonial occasions or when a tie-breaking vote may be needed. Yet, even though the nature of the job has changed, it is still greatly affected by the personality and skills of the individual incumbent.

So while Palin is Constitutionally correct in her description of the Vice-President’s role in the Senate, as a practical matter the extensive involvement she envisions is rarely seen these days. I see no Constitutional reason why she could not involve herself as much as nineteenth century Vice-Presidents did but I imagine the Senators themselves would dislike that very much and their dislike would make life more difficult for a McCain administration.

Certainly, M&M could have used the “impractical” argument to make what Palin said sound ridiculous. They would have had to figure out a way to avoid making the Senators sound unconstitutional while making Palin sound like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington but I’m sure they could have managed it. Since they chose to use the “she needs to read the Constitution” argument instead, I can only assume they are far more clueless about the Constitution than Sarah Palin.

As long as we’re on the subject, let’s look at what was actually said in the Vice-Presidential debate, a forum that Matthews pinpointed as the beginning of what he apparently believes are Palin’s grandiose notions about the role of the Vice-President. Based on the New York Times transcript of this debate, the discussion of the role of the Vice-President begins when the moderator, Gwen Ifill, says, “But tell us now, looking forward, what it is you think the vice presidency is worth now.” Palin and Biden do a little back and forth about joking and then:

PALIN: No, no. Of course, we know what a vice president does. And that's not only to preside over the Senate and will take that position very seriously also. I'm thankful the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate and making sure that we are supportive of the president's policies and making sure too that our president understands what our strengths are. John McCain and I have had good conversations about where I would lead with his agenda. That is energy independence in America and reform of government over all, and then working with families of children with special needs. That's near and dear to my heart also. In those arenas, John McCain has already tapped me and said, that's where I want you, I want you to lead. I said, I can't wait to get and there go to work with you.

IFILL: Senator?

BIDEN: Gwen, I hope we'll get back to education because I don't know any government program that John is supporting, not early education, more money for it. The reason No Child Left Behind was left behind, the money was left behind, we didn't fund it. We can get back to that I assume.

With regard to the role of vice president, I had a long talk, as I'm sure the governor did with her principal, in my case with Barack. Let me tell you what Barack asked me to do. I have a history of getting things done in the United States Senate. John McCain would acknowledge that. My record shows that on controversial issues. I would be the point person for the legislative initiatives in the United States Congress for our administration. I would also, when asked if I wanted a portfolio, my response was, no. But Barack Obama indicated to me he wanted me with him to help him govern. So every major decision he'll be making, I'll be sitting in the room to give my best advice. He's president, not me, I'll give my best advice.

And one of the things he said early on when he was choosing, he said he picked someone who had an independent judgment and wouldn't be afraid to tell him if he disagreed. That is sort of my reputation, as you know. I look forward to working with Barack and playing a very constructive role in his presidency, bringing about the kind of change this country needs.

So when Sarah Palin speaks of “working with the Senate and making sure that we are supportive of the president's policies” she’s out of line but when Joe Biden says “I have a history of getting things done in the United States Senate. ... I would be the point person for the legislative initiatives in the United States Congress for our administration” M&M presumably have no problem with that. Personally, I don’t see a dime’s worth of difference between the intentions of the two candidates. Palin may intend to try to use her role as President of the Senate to accomplish what Biden would probably accomplish via personal contacts and, well, schmoozing, but the desired outcome is the same. Each plans to be the President’s liaison with the Senate.

The debate discussion continues immediately with (emphasis mine):

IFILL: Governor, you mentioned a moment ago the constitution might give the vice president more power than it has in the past. Do you believe as Vice President Cheney does, that the Executive Branch does not hold complete sway over the office of the vice presidency, that it it is also a member of the Legislative Branch?

PALIN: Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president's agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we'll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation. And it is my executive experience that is partly to be attributed to my pick as V.P. with McCain, not only as a governor, but earlier on as a mayor, as an oil and gas regulator, as a business owner. It is those years of experience on an executive level that will be put to good use in the White House also.

IFILL: Vice President Cheney's interpretation of the vice presidency?

BIDEN: Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history. The idea he doesn't realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States, that's the Executive Branch. He works in the Executive Branch. He should understand that. Everyone should understand that.

And the primary role of the vice president of the United States of America is to support the president of the United States of America, give that president his or her best judgment when sought, and as vice president, to preside over the Senate, only in a time when in fact there's a tie vote. The Constitution is explicit.

The only authority the vice president has from the legislative standpoint is the vote, only when there is a tie vote. He has no authority relative to the Congress. The idea he's part of the Legislative Branch is a bizarre notion invented by Cheney to aggrandize the power of a unitary executive and look where it has gotten us. It has been very dangerous.

Oops! Let’s see how many errors we can ring up in Biden’s comments:

1) Article I defines only part of the role of the Vice-President, not all of it.

2) Article I defines the Legislative branch not the Executive branch.

3) The Vice-President has Constitutional duties in both the Legislative and Executive branches.

4) Constitutionally, the Vice-President can preside over the Senate whenever he or she darn well pleases.

5) Constitutionally, the Vice-President has as much authority over Congress (at least the Senate) as he or she chooses to exert. I simply don’t see any way the Senate could refuse to let the Vice-President run things if she showed up, gavel in hand, to do so.

6) The idea that the Vice-President is part of the Legislative branch is a bizarre notion invented not by Dick Cheney but by the Framers of the Constitution. Silly unitary power aggrandizers.

Call me cynical but I’m willing to bet a fair sum of money that M&M never had a little chuckle-fest over Biden’s understanding of the Constitution.

Okay, enough of the Constitutional problem with M&M’s tete-a-tete. On to the contextual problem.

Actually, there are two contextual problems, one immediate and one overarching. The immediate one is that the clip Matthews played is, shall we say, abbreviated. The whole exchange between the interviewer and Palin took about 45 seconds; Matthews played about 18 seconds worth. Here’s the whole exchange:

Interviewer: Finally, Governor, we’ve been trying to engage some local grade schoolers the last few elections cycles. We do have a few more questions from the third grade.

Palin: Good.

Interviewer: Brandon Garcia wants to know, “What does the Vice President do?”

Palin: Aw, that’s something that Piper would ask me as a second grader, also. That’s a great question, Brandon. And a Vice-President has a really great job because not only are they there to support the President’s agenda - they’re like the team member, the teammate to that President - but also they’re in charge of the United States Senate so if they want to they can really get in there with the Senators and make a lot of good policy changes what will make life better for Brandon and his family and his classroom. And it’s a great job and I look forward to having that job.

Now Governor Palin sounds just a tiny bit simplistic in the clip Matthews played and her affect is definitely kind of cheery, for lack of a better word. Once you realize she is in effect talking to a ten-year old, though, she sounds more like a mommy than a lightweight.

The overarching context is this: the entire interview was just over eight minutes long. The 45-second exchange Matthews carved up and ran came at the very end of the interview. This would seem to mean that someone must have sat through the entire interview to find this little segment. Surely that someone could have found something newsworthy in Palin’s answer to the following questions:

1) Are you ready?

2) Are you surprised at the intensity with which some have gone after you?

3) Why should a voter who is struggling economically put his trust in you?

4) The First Lady of Colorado supports a tax increase to help children with autism, Down syndrome, and similar issues. Do you support that?

5) What Democrats would be a good fit for a McCain/Palin administration?

6) Why isn’t there more comment about oil shale extraction?

7) Is there such a thing as clean coal?

Palin was at least as impressive as Biden is in similar interviews. She knew her facts and marshaled them well. In fact, throughout the interview Sarah Palin was - if I may plagiarize Joe Biden - "articulate and bright and clean and ... nice-looking.” (Although I have to admit I wasn’t crazy about that red leather.)

Why didn’t Matthews play some of the earlier interview for Maher? We have so many possible explanations it’s hard to settle on just one. In the tank for Obama? MSNBC misogyny (aka, dog bites man)? Class prejudice? I know. How about “All of the above”?

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