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It is generally conceded that Vice President Cheney has been our most influential vice president. During his two terms, the office assumed a significance which his predecessors, even those who themselves were quite significant, would not have thought possible. Whereas historically the vice presidency had been dismissed as too feeble, the Cheney vice presidency was attacked as too robust.

The unprecedented power of Cheney as vice president had many sources. One of them was the war on terror. It, of course, assumed an unexpected prominence after 9/11, and the war on terror contributed to Cheney’s ascendance and provided the political theatre in which his unique vice presidential role was performed. The war on terror allowed for an expansion of executive power generally in a manner which extended presidential power beyond its normal sphere even while the vice presidency itself occupied a larger space in the executive branch.

This paper will explore the unprecedented nature of the Cheney vice presidency, relating its growth to the war on terror, and suggesting ways in which during Cheney’s tenure the office escaped conventional sources of vice-presidential accountability. The Cheney vice presidency avoided many of the constraints which presidential leadership normally imposes as well as those forms of accountability which are rooted in the political system. Moreover, normal patterns of vice-presidential self-restraint often seemed absent, perhaps related to the other two developments.

The patterns of the Cheney tenure are unlikely to become permanent, rooted as they were in a distinctive set of circumstances. It is hard to imagine another president allowing the vice president such latitude, another vice president flexing such muscle, or circumstances occurring which were so conducive to so expansive a vice-presidential role. Nonetheless, the Cheney tenure provides yet another model of vice-presidential conduct and furnishes a case study against which to test certain ideas about the vice presidency in particular and concepts about the institutional design of American government more generally.


Paper prepared for presentation at the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, September 5, 2009, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.