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Eliminate The Vice-Presidency ?

by @ 3:11 pm on August 18, 2008. Filed under 2006 Election, History, Politics, U.S. Constitution

While we wait for John McCain and Barack Obama to announce their Vice-Presidential running mates, Matthew Yglesias argues that maybe we should think of getting rid of the Office of Vice-President:

When you think about it, it’s exceedingly odd. The Vice President has no formal role in the conduct of government to speak of. And yet, since the end of World War II the choice of VP has been very important. Not so much because the Vice President is an important person but because no many VPs go on (Truman, Nixon, Johnson, HW Bush) to become President while others (Gore, Humphrey, Mondale) become major party nominees. Consequently, even though the office is trivial, the choice is very important. But the choice is also fairly important politically to the person who does the choosing. Therefore, “would it be good for this person to become a presidential nominee” gets relatively little consideration during the decision-making process (relative to: would s/he be a good surrogate? give me a ‘bounce’? help with a state?) even though it really ought to be the primary consideration. Beyond that, you have the “Cheney Paradox.” It seems perverse to have a Vice President who doesn’t do anything. But a Vice President who does too much becomes a destabilizing influence within the government — nobody really knows who he speaks for, and he can influence things in ways that provide for no accountability.

At the end of the day, after all, the Vice President’s core job function is simply to take over the government in case the President dies. But it would be easy enough for the line of succession to simply run through the cabinet (SecState, SecDef, etc…) rather than their being a specially designated “inaugurate in case of death” figure. The original conception of the Vice Presidency was a constitutional bug that the framers hadn’t really thought through properly, and though Amendment XII works okay as a patch, it would really be better do do away with the thing entirely.

Would it really ? Frankly, I’m not convinced.

One of the values of having a popularly elected successor to the President is that it helps to maintain a sense of democratic legitimacy to the office. If the Vice-Presidency were to be eliminated and the line of succession changed so that an unelected office holder like the Secretary of State, or one elected only by a small number of people such as the Speaker of the House or President of the Senate,  would become the immediate successor to the office, the first thought that would come to the minds of many people would be — who voted for this guy ?

Yes, it is possible today for something like that to happen. In fact, it did happen in 1974 when Gerald Ford was named to succeed Spiro Agnew as Vice-President under the Section 2 of the 25th Amendment, and then succeeded to the Presidency under Section 1 of that same Amendment when Richard Nixon resigned shortly thereafter. But such a succession is rare in American history — one time in over two centuries — while we’ve seen the elected Vice-President become President eight times due to the death of a President while in office.

At the same time, it’s unclear how much impact a candidates Vice-Presidential choice actually has on voters. As I noted several months ago, it’s fairly clear that George H.W. Bush’s selection of Dan Quayle was a weak one at best, but there’s no evidence that it any impact at all on the 1988 Presidential Election.

Notwithstanding Dick Cheney’s arguably unconstitutional extension of the powers of the office, the Vice-Presidency is still very much as John Adams once described it:

Gentlemen, I feel a great difficulty how to act. I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.

And it is precisely because of the fact that the Vice-President, whether they serve under President Obama or President McCain, could one day be everything that the office should continue to exist.

H/T: Justin Gardner

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One Response to “Eliminate The Vice-Presidency ?”

  1. [...] were waiting for Barack Obama and John McCain to choose their running mates. And, Ackerman is wrong for many of the same reasons I noted that Yglesias was wrong back then: One of the values of having a popularly elected successor to the President is that it helps to [...]

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