Commentary Magazine


Topic: the Constitution

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.

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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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A Conservative Vision of Government

Michael Gerson and I have written an essay, “A Conservative Vision of Government,” published in the newest issue of the indispensable quarterly National Affairs. Our aim is to make a persuasive case for why conservatives should speak about not only the size but also the purposes of government–and why a modern, reform agenda is key to the future of the GOP and conservatism. 

We explain in some detail our deep disagreements with the Obama agenda and why limited government advances individual liberty and human flourishing. But we deal with a good deal more than that.

The essay responds to what we consider to be a rhetorical indiscipline among some on the right that is often directed against government. Since those attacks are often justified by references to the Constitution and the American founding, we explore the views of the Federalist founders and Lincoln, who in fact were not fiercely and ideologically anti-government.

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Michael Gerson and I have written an essay, “A Conservative Vision of Government,” published in the newest issue of the indispensable quarterly National Affairs. Our aim is to make a persuasive case for why conservatives should speak about not only the size but also the purposes of government–and why a modern, reform agenda is key to the future of the GOP and conservatism. 

We explain in some detail our deep disagreements with the Obama agenda and why limited government advances individual liberty and human flourishing. But we deal with a good deal more than that.

The essay responds to what we consider to be a rhetorical indiscipline among some on the right that is often directed against government. Since those attacks are often justified by references to the Constitution and the American founding, we explore the views of the Federalist founders and Lincoln, who in fact were not fiercely and ideologically anti-government.

We point out that the Federalist founders, unlike some anti-federalist opponents of the Constitution, did not view government as an evil, or even as a necessary evil. In their view, government, properly understood and framed, was essential to promoting what they referred to as the “public good.” The most important framers and explicators of the Constitution–Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, and others–believed the national government had to have the ability to adapt as necessary to meet citizens’ needs as those needs were expressed through representative government. (“In framing a system which we wish to last for ages,” Madison told the Constitutional Convention, “we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce.”) They would have little toleration, we write,

for politicians who are committed to abstract theories even when they are at odds with the given world and the welfare of the polity — who fail to differentiate between conserving the system by adapting it to changing circumstances and undermining the system by breaking with its fundamental aims and outlook.

We devote a section of the essay to law and character, arguing that by definition laws shape habits, values, and sensibilities–not every law, not all the time, but enough to play a decisive role in the formation of our national character and the individual characters of our citizens.

The last section of our piece argues that the real problem in much of American government is not simply that it is too big but rather that it is antiquated, ineffective, and ill-equipped to handle the most basic functions appropriate for a great and modern country. Conservatives, we say, “should offer a menu of structural reforms that do not simply attack government but transform it on conservative terms.” 

The essay concludes this way:

Conservatives are more likely to be trusted to run the affairs of the nation if they show the public that they grasp the purposes of government, that they fully appreciate it is in desperate need of renovation, and that they know what needs to be done. The American people are deeply practical; they are interested in what works. And they want their government to work. Conservatives know how institutions can and should work in our free society, and they can apply that knowledge to government. 

All this leads us to a final reason why conservatives should be engaged in the reform of government. The reputation of government is an important national asset — and an irreplaceable source of national pride. Government overreach by the left has degraded that asset. Today’s hemorrhaging of trust in public institutions, if left to run its course, will only further degrade it. Skepticism toward government is one thing; outright hostility is injurious to the health of American democracy itself. How can citizens be expected to love their country if they are encouraged to hold its government in utter contempt?

Thinking of government as a precious national institution in need of care and reform does not come naturally to many modern-day conservatives. Given the damage that our government is doing to our society, it is easy to understand their anger and frustration. But that is precisely why, especially now, conservatives must make the case that they will give Americans a government, and therefore a country, they can once again be proud of. 

Our essay, then, is an attempt to lay out a vision of conservatism that is philosophically sound and politically popular. But judge for yourself.

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Our Talmudic American Conservatism

One of the top items at the Economist’s website today was its most recent “Lexington” column from the print edition, which offered a modest proposal: discriminate against lawyers in Congress by establishing an upper limit on the number of law degrees in the legislative branch. The Economist is unhappy with the “legalistic” approach Americans take to their system of governance, and seems to draw a parallel between the polling unpopularity of lawyers and that of members of Congress.

I think the Economist misses an important point about why American governance is conducted in this language, and why that’s a good thing. And though the Economist seeks to dismiss the behavior it describes, in raising the issue it does at least present us with a moment to contemplate an aspect of American politics that bears defending, and loudly. When in the course of attacking lawyers (and specifically Ted Cruz–who else?) the magazine wrote:

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One of the top items at the Economist’s website today was its most recent “Lexington” column from the print edition, which offered a modest proposal: discriminate against lawyers in Congress by establishing an upper limit on the number of law degrees in the legislative branch. The Economist is unhappy with the “legalistic” approach Americans take to their system of governance, and seems to draw a parallel between the polling unpopularity of lawyers and that of members of Congress.

I think the Economist misses an important point about why American governance is conducted in this language, and why that’s a good thing. And though the Economist seeks to dismiss the behavior it describes, in raising the issue it does at least present us with a moment to contemplate an aspect of American politics that bears defending, and loudly. When in the course of attacking lawyers (and specifically Ted Cruz–who else?) the magazine wrote:

The imbalance is not new: more than half the men who signed the Declaration of Independence had a legal training. But a legalistic approach to politics is no longer serving America well. Today’s budget wars are deeply political. They reflect unresolved debates that divide the country: over equality and redistribution, risk-taking and safety nets, and the role of government itself. Seen through foreign eyes, the current dysfunction within Congress is at once distinctively American and recognisable as a political crisis within a grand coalition: in essence the Tea Party is walking out on other members of the Republican alliance, whom you might call the Business Party, the National Security Party and the Christian Values Party. But too often, these budget battles are being fought with legal arguments about precedent and legitimacy, advanced by politicians trained in the adversarial, prove-me-wrong traditions of American law.

I sympathize somewhat with the sentiment that the role of emotion, rhetoric, and social solidarity cannot be completely removed from politics. But let me step in here to defend the law (and the lawyers). This country has a special relationship with its founding documents, in which they are treated almost as revelation. It’s no surprise that the historian Pauline Maier titled her book on the development of the Declaration of Independence American Scripture.

Yet it’s not a religious document, only one that is treated with religious reverence. I’m reminded of the scene in the West Wing when the (Democratic) president’s speechwriter is furious to discover that a man whose reputation he had long defended was actually a Cold War turncoat who worked for the Soviets decades before. “This country is an idea,” he says angrily. “And one that’s lit the whole world for two centuries.”

It was Daniel J. Boorstin’s contention that this idea of America stood in place for any real post-independence philosophical and ideological development. I discussed Boorstin’s idea of American “givenness” back in April, and referenced a COMMENTARY essay he wrote on the topic in 1953, which was based on a book he was about to publish called The Genius of American Politics. He explained “givenness” in the essay as “the belief that values in America are in some way or other automatically defined: given by certain facts of geography or history peculiar to us.”

In the book, Boorstin elaborates and explains that this lack of a need for new ideological theorizing is partially responsible for the form that our historical review tends to take: through massive biographies of the Founders, in which we seek to understand our secular American saints rather than write our own ever-changing scripture. Boorstin writes:

Political theory has been little studied in the United States. For example, departments of political science in many of our universities show more interest in almost anything else than in political theory. This, too, can be explained in part by the limitations imposed by the “preformation” point of view. If our nation in the beginning was actually founded on an adequate and sufficiently explicit theory revealed at one time, later theorists can have only the minor task of exegesis, of explaining the sacred texts. Constitutional history can, and in many ways has, become a substitute for political theory.

What this is, in its own peculiarly American way, is an essentially talmudic approach to American law. As we see from Pauline Maier’s characterization of the Declaration of Independence, that document was a kind of dogmatic explication of God-given laws. The Constitution and amendments that followed it served as the oral law to the Declaration’s written law, a practical guide to guard and fulfill inarguable principles.

America’s Jews, then, are well positioned to understand exactly what the Economist complains of. Orthodox Judaism has halakhic guidelines preventing certain actions that would be sanctioned by a plain reading of the Torah so as to guard against transgressing biblical laws. As I discussed in my post yesterday, the amendments to the Constitution were largely to prevent a situation in which tyranny could develop. They are not a “break glass in case of emergency” last resort in the event that tyranny shows up. They err on the side of caution and seek to rule out actions that might seem on the surface to be in accord with America’s founding ideals but which could put the country on a slippery slope.

“This is our kind of conservatism,” Boorstin wrote, by which he meant a temperamentally conservative outlook rather than an ideologically conservative outlook. But the Economist and numerous others–many more today than when Boorstin wrote those words–see this is as so much hypochondria. It is not intended to be neurotic, and when employed by conservatives today it is not intended to be bullying–though when applied by ideological conservatives who are not also temperamental conservatives it can certainly come across that way.

It is simply intended to be faithful to an idea. Because this country is an idea, and it is one that has lit the whole world for two centuries.

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