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Abolish the Vice Presidency

The drama surrounding Hillary Clinton’s prospective candidacy has made writing about the 2016 presidential election nearly unavoidable. But the possibility of a Clinton coronation has led to some expanded predictions: we’re now–in mid-2014–talking about running mates. This was primarily driven by the suggestion that Democrats were positioning San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro for a spot on the 2016 ticket.

That led to speculation over who the Republicans would nominate for vice president, and since in this scenario they’d be running against two “historic” nominees, the question simply becomes one of race and gender identity politics. Not content with Castro, Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein is now fretting over the Democrats’ veep bench for 2016, though Doug Mataconis has an excellent post offering Bernstein some perspective on the matter.

But there’s a way out of this madness, and this is a good opportunity do something that’s made sense for a very long time: abolish the vice presidency.

It’s not a new idea, but it’s worth revisiting now that the parties are apparently choosing the next-in-line by playing the matching game. This certainly isn’t an upgrade over the last method, in which presidential nominees placed questionable geographic bets with their veep selections. That at least had the advantage of choosing a recognized and relatively popular–and thus, usually experienced–legislator or governor.

But we don’t need to agonize over how we choose the vice president. We can free ourselves by getting rid of the vice presidency altogether. First and foremost, the vice presidency has strayed–and actually, it did so almost from the very beginning–from the Founders’ idea of the position, which they weren’t exactly wild about to start with. As Arthur Schlesinger wrote in his 1974 Atlantic essay:

The vice presidency was put into the Constitution for one reason, and one reason alone. Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, a member of the committee that originated the idea, conceded at the Convention that “such an office as vice-president was not wanted. It was introduced only for the sake of a valuable mode of election which required two to be chosen at the same time.” This is an essential but neglected point. The theory of presidential elections embodied in the Constitution was that if electors had to vote for two men without designating which was to be President and which Vice President, and if one of these men had, as the Constitution required, to be from another state, then both men who topped the poll would be of the highest quality, and the republic would be safe in the hands of either. …

In 1800 the Republicans gave the same number of electoral votes to Jefferson, their presidential choice, as they gave to Aaron Burr, a man of undoubted talents who, however, was trusted by no one in the long course of American history, except his daughter Theodosia and Gore Vidal. Burr was nearly chosen President, though the voters never intended him for the presidency. The fear of comparable slipups in 1804 led to the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment requiring the electoral college to vote separately for President and Vice President.

The abolition of the “valuable mode of election” canceled the purpose of the Founding Fathers in having a Vice President at all.

Indeed it did. What’s frustrating about the evolution of the vice presidency is that it was not only predictable but predicted. All throughout American history politicians and commentators offered nothing toward the office but acid and pity. (Schlesinger’s own article begins: “We have a Vice President again, and Mr. Ford deserves all our sympathy.”)

The vice presidency gains a fair amount of legitimacy from the fact that, technically, he or she has been elected by national vote. But my goodness that “technically” should not get the office so far. The American people vote for the top of the ticket. The vice presidential nominee is, in the minds of the voters at least, an add-on. When current Vice President Joe Biden ran for the top job, the reaction of his own party’s voters was consistent, overwhelming rejection. He is something like a sixty-point underdog to win his own party’s nomination to succeed the president he now serves.

The electoral legitimacy of the vice president is not only dubious, therefore, but dangerous. What we have is a next-in-line who basically got there by appointment and is often far less prepared to take over than other members of the president’s Cabinet. There are exceptions, of course, but they are just that.

So who would replace the vice president in the line of automatic succession? Anyone else would possess less electoral legitimacy than the current vice president unless it was a leader of one of the houses of Congress, in which case upon presidential vacancy the high office could switch parties without an election, an outcome that should be avoided.

Perhaps someone–the secretary of state, say–could take over on a provisional basis while a national election could be organized. Ideally they would not be considered “president,” but that has its own drawbacks: could they sign bills or treaties? The following election would have to take place relatively soon, which means a brief nominating and general-election period. But that has advantages. After all, we have the opposite now, and we’re left filling time and space by talking, regrettably, about vice-presidential nominees.


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