Ending the Vice Presidency
Sunday’s WaPo put together a collection of half-baked ideas by smart folks, designed to generate controversy and discussion more so than shed serious light on policy ideas. Thomas Ricks’ suggestion to close the service academies and war colleges got the most attention, overshadowing the abject silliness of Jeremy Lott’s column advocating doing away with the vice presidency, an idea not worth a warm bucket of piss.
The framers of the Constitution got many things right. But when they got things wrong, they were seriously off. Compromising on slavery, for instance. That’s a bad one.
Except for the fact that the Southern states wouldn’t have signed on and we’d have been stuck with the Articles of Confederation, of course.
Fourteen of our 44 presidents started on the bottom of the ticket, a high proportion with ill effects on American politics. The vice presidency has provided a springboard to the nation’s highest office for individuals unlikely to have made it there on their own.
From 1952 to 1972, only one election went by without Richard Nixon on the national ballot. For all his legislative smarts, Lyndon Johnson was an awkward bully who turned off many voters. George H.W. Bush was an also-ran who never would have reached the Oval Office had Ronald Reagan not kept the seat warm for him. (And would George W. have made it if his father hadn’t?)
The vice presidency has also put troubling and divisive men only a heartbeat away. Aaron Burr, Henry Wallace, Al Gore and Dick Cheney came too close for comfort.
Um, Richard Nixon was a respected United States Senator who thrice got his party’s nomination for president, winning two landslides and losing the other in one of the closest contests in history. Johnson and Bush were the second place finishers in their nominating contests. Bush would have almost certainly beaten Carter on his own merits. Further, we’ve had plenty of “troubling and divisive” people get elected to the presidency without a stint as second banana.
Sure, a few vice presidents who get the top job do it well. (Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman come to mind.) But the downsides outweigh the standouts. That’s not surprising, since the office was poorly thought out and has been subject to three constitutional amendments (the 12th, 20th and 25th, for those keeping score).
Only the 12th — which (in effect) makes the VP part of the same ticket as the president rather than the second-place finisher in the presidential race — deals directly with the vice presidency; it was ratified 205 years ago. The 20th and 25th deal with arcane matters of presidential succession. The latter of which, incidentally, recognizes the dreadful possibility that the president is killed or incapacitated and there’s a vacancy in the vice presidency and remedies that.
It would be better if the president’s understudy were separately elected by voters,
This is insane. Seriously, we want a backup that’s independently elected and who could, theoretically, have an entirely different agenda than the guy who won? And who would take office and put in his own people? Really?
or better yet, if the office simply disappeared. For all the attention their campaign-time selections garner, few voters cast their ballots based on the vice-presidential candidate — even though that person has a nearly one in three chance of going all the way.
Recall, this “one in three” includes cases where the VP wins election in his own right. But there have been an inordinate number of cases where the sitting president dies in office, mostly suddenly. What alternative system does Lott propose for dealing with these emergencies? Why, none at all! He doesn’t even mention the possibility!
Presumably, then, we’d simply follow the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. Hello, President Nancy Pelosi! And, if something should happen to her, hello President Robert Byrd!
UPDATE: See “Ending the Vice Presidency II” for Lott’s response.