Document Type

Article

Publication Date

1988

Abstract

There are many good things in the Constitution, but the vice-presidency isn't one of them. In Part I of this essay, I will argue that there are three basic problems with the vice-presidency: the method of nomination, the method of election, and the office itself. That just about covers the waterfront.' If we had to do it all over again, we almost certainly would not" create the system we currently have. We cannot undo history, but we do have a very strong incentive to develop a better system of succession to the presidency. Whom we choose as vice-president is a matter of great national importance. Nine men have succeeded to the presidency from the second spot, five of them since 1900.2 In this century, we have fared reasonably well with vice-presidents who have succeeded to the White House. In various surveys, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman have consistently been ranked as among our best presidents.3 But the vice-presidents of the last century who succeeded to the White House, and a substantial number of those in either century who did not, were mediocrities or worse.4 Spiro T. Agnew is the most recent example of a narrowly averted disaster, but there have been others. For example, suppose that Franklin Roosevelt had died in his first or second term instead of his fourth. The man to guide us through the Depression would have been John Nance Garner. No doubt Cactus Jack was an able legislative tactician, and perhaps he did not fully merit John L. Lewis's classic description of him as "a whiskey-drinking, poker-playing, evil old man." 5 But he was hardly the inspirational and forward-thinking leader that the people sought and got in Roosevelt. Or suppose that Roosevelt had died during his third term. Our wartime leader would have been Henry Agard Wallace - a brilliant agronomist, and a person of good will and sometimes sound vision, but plagued with a muddle-headedness best summarized by Dashiell Hammett's comment that "he'd be better off leaving things alone and cross-breeding himself."'6 We may not always be so lucky. If I am correct, as I argue in Part I, that the vice-presidency is fundamentally flawed, then we should think seriously about how to improve it. And there is no better time than now, as we approach a presidential election. In Part II, therefore, I offer three simple but far-reaching proposals. Each addresses one of the problems that I have identified. The first proposal is that the vice-presidency not be considered a disqualification from holding another office, at least one in the federal executive branch. This proposal is "serious" in the sense that the next president can and should seriously consider implementing it immediately. No obstacles preclude the core application of this proposal, and it requires no constitutional or other legal change. (It would help to have a constitutional amendment eliminating the vice-president's role as president of the Senate and clearly obviating any constitutional problems; so far as this proposal concerns appointment of the vice-president to a federal executive position, however, I do not believe that such an amendment is necessary. 7) The other two proposals, that the vice-president should be separately nominated and separately elected, are more speculative. The three proposals are modular - they can be adopted independently or in any combination.


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