Earlier today, my colleague Seth Mandel reacted to the speculation about San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro being positioned for the 2016 Democratic nomination for vice president by wondering whether we might not be better off abolishing the vice presidency altogether. Seth believes the spectacle of the two major parties lining up potential candidates mainly on the basis of either gender and race is unseemly. The talk of either party’s “veep bench” is equally absurd even if we are pretty sure of who will be at the top of the Democratic ticket in two years.
It’s also true that the office has, from its very beginnings, been of questionable utility. It’s only in the last generation that vice presidents have been given any responsibilities other than their constitutional task of presiding over the Senate. Seth also makes an excellent point when he observes that the Founding Fathers had a very different view of the office than we do today. In the first four presidential elections, the vice president was merely the man who came in second in the Electoral College vote with each elector being given two votes. That process was based in the belief on the part of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that parties would not play a role in electing our presidents. Once that system had to be changed because of Aaron Burr’s betrayal of Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election, the original conception of the office became obsolete. Thus, Seth reasons we would save a lot of trouble by getting rid of a post that has rarely done the republic much service over the last 225 years.
But while there’s always been a potent critique to be made about the vice presidency—and one that has often been made by the hapless occupiers of the dubious honor—getting rid of it is a terrible idea. Whatever its drawbacks, and however mediocre or worse many of them have been, having a vice president lends legitimacy to the process of succession that is absolutely essential in a constitutional republic.
The gravest doubts about the survival of the American political experiment in its earliest years often centered on the question of legitimacy and succession. Would a president, especially one like George Washington, who was the idol of the country, ever willingly step down and lay the foundation for the future of democracy rather than have the republic quickly lapse into tyranny or monarchy as most previous such experiments had done? Would an incumbent that was defeated for reelection choose to peacefully hand over the government to his opponents?
Washington and Adams answered those questions in the affirmative to their everlasting honor. But still unanswered was the question as to what would happen if a president died? Would there be chaos? Would the government be at a standstill until a new election could be held? Having a vice president who was already voted into office by the same Electoral College created a stable process that kept the system from running off the rails in the event of a calamity. Indeed, when William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office, passed away a month after his inauguration there were doubts about what would happen. But John Tyler slid neatly into Harrison’s place and the republic survived with no apparent trouble. The same has happened every time since then when America found itself with an accidental president.
Any possible alternative to a sitting vice president, including the option Seth mentioned of having the succession pass to the secretary of state, lacks the legitimacy of a national election in which the identity of the standby is determined. Nor is the idea of a snap presidential election when a successor is needed a viable option. Most voters and politicians would agree that one presidential election every four years is bad enough.
The stability of the American republic lies in no small measure on our constitutional traditions and the fact that our democratic system has already passed through most conceivable challenges and emerged intact. The vice presidency is in many ways an anomalous office and the competition for it is more often than not a parody of the presidential process. But, for all its faults, it has served us well since John Adams took the oath of office as our first vice president and wondered what exactly he had gotten himself into. We tinker with the basic structure of our government at our own peril.