Michael Nelson: How Vice Presidential Debates Came to Be

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Michael Nelson, a former editor of The Washington Monthly, is a professor of political science at Rhodes College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.]

The first presidential debates occurred 48 years ago, in 1960. The first vice presidential debate didn’t take place until debates resumed in 1976, 16 years later. How come?

The answer is that three very significant things happened to the vice presidency during those 16 years.

1. Half of the six vice presidents in this period went on to become president: Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded to the office when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 and 1972, and Gerald R. Ford succeeded to the office when Nixon resigned in 1974. Half is higher than the historical average, which for all other periods has been less than one in three.

2. The 25th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1967. It’s often referred to as the presidential disability amendment but it’s first and foremost an amendment about the vice presidency. Section 1 makes explicit what the original Constitution only halfway implied, namely, that when the president dies, resigns, or is impeached and removed, the vice president is to become president for the remainder of the four-year term. Section 2 provides a method for filling vacancies in the vice presidency, 16 of which had occurred during the nation’s first 36 presidencies. Tellingly, the premise of this provision is that we need a vice president at all times, something that previous generations obviously had doubted. Finally, Section 3 makes the vice president the crucial figure when questions about presidential disability arise, both in determining whether a disability exists if the president cannot or will not do so and in serving as acting president during a time of disability.

3. By 1976 the vice presidency had gained some of the institutional resources that made it possible for the vice president who was elected that year, Walter F. Mondale, and his successors to play an influential role in government. Johnson gained for the office an impressive suite of rooms in the Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House (previously the vice president’s only office was in the Capitol), and Spiro T. Agnew won a line item for the vice presidency in the executive budget. Between the two of them they freed vice presidents from their previous dependence on Congress for office space and operating funds....

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