The phrase “heartbeat away from the presidency” refers to the fact that the vice president will automatically succeed the presidency in the case of the president’s death, disability, or resignation.
The vice presidency is not a powerful position in itself. The Senate’s own website calls the job “the least understood, most ridiculed, and most often ignored constitutional office in the federal government.” Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, once said that the title wasn’t worth “a bucket of warm spit.” The position has grown in importance over the years, with Dick Cheney (vice president under George W. Bush) arguably elevating the job to one of real significance. Still, the job doesn’t come with its own powers.
The vice president presides over the Senate and may cast a deciding ballot in the case of deadlock; the vice president may also advise the president on policy matters. Broadly, though, the vice president’s job is to be prepared to take over if anything happens to the president. As WhiteHouse.gov puts it:
The primary responsibility of the Vice President of the United States is to be ready at a moment’s notice to assume the Presidency if the President is unable to perform his duties. This can be because of the President’s death, resignation, or temporary incapacitation, or if the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet judge that the President is no longer able to discharge the duties of the presidency.
Over the course of US history, a total of nine vice presidents have succeeded presidents in the middle of their terms. Eight of those occurred because of a president’s death. One president, Richard Nixon, resigned and was replaced by his vice president, Gerald Ford. Considering that the nation has had only 45 presidents to date, this means that 20% of America’s presidents have been succeeded mid-term by their vice presidents.
Presidential candidates like to jab at the other side’s vice-presidential pick, whenever possible. In 2008, when Barack Obama was running against John McCain, McCain surprised many by picking an unknown Alaskan politician as his running mate. Sarah Palin, the former mayor of the town of Wasilla, was a political newcomer. The Obama campaign released this curt statement when McCain announced that she was joining his ticket:
Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency. Governor Palin shares John McCain’s commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade, the agenda of Big Oil and continuing George Bush’s failed economic policies — that’s not the change we need, it’s just more of the same.
The conservative commentator William Kristol jumped to Sarah Palin’s defense. Writing in the New York Times, Kristol reminded his readers that throughout US history, politicians have been fretting needlessly about vice presidential experience. William McKinley’s campaign advisers worried that McKinley’s running mate, Theodore Roosevelt, was far too young and inexperienced to succeed McKinley. In the event, of course, Roosevelt proved them wrong.
Sarah Palin, Kristol argued, was an all-American “Wal-Mart” mom, and that may be a good thing. He wrote, “A Wasilla Wal-Mart Mom a heartbeat away? I suspect most voters will say, No problem. And some – perhaps a decisive number – will say, It’s about time.”