Monday, June 16, 2008

Do we really need a Vice President?

With the primary cycle finished, the next phase of the prolonged Year of Election struggle to Teh White House is the selection of a co-campaigner by the two major nominees. We now await McCain and Obama to select their running mates to serve as their Vice President.

Originally, the Vice President was meant to be the runner-up, the second-most popular guy in school kinda booby prize. But this was before the Founders realized that we would form parties similar to the British electoral system, and well before they realized the Electoral College voting system could get screwed up without defining who was up for President and who was up for Veep.

Before this election cycle, I never really gave the Vice President selection process any deep thought. It was just one guy running for President selecting a backup guy to team with him and 'balance the ticket', in terms of party ideology and regional representation (President and Vice President, by law, cannot come from the same state, which is why Dick Cheney pretends he's from Wyoming). But this election cycle, after the last eight years, I'm seriously looking at how the VP process is working out. And I'm seriously arguing that, as of right now, we don't need a Vice President anymore.

Okay, we all know the duties of the Vice President are to 1) wait around for the President to resign or kick the bucket so the Veep can take over, 2) cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate if need be, and 3) protect the spacetime continuum. But the real purpose of the Vice President evolved from the political need of retaining party unity. Parties have their factions, and even with a majority faction getting their Dawg to the nomination for Prez the minority faction(s) need a bone tossed their way lest they bolt the party and vote elsewhere. Hence, Chester A. Arthur (Stalwart) balancing with Garfield (Half-Breed reformer), Teddy Roosevelt (Progressive) balancing out McKinley (pro-business), Walter Mondale (pro-labor) balancing with Jimmy Carter (pro-house building). But the flip-side problem to this was that the Vice President candidate couldn't outshine the Presidential candidate, meaning real colorless or real clueless types got dragged into the equations. Or that sometimes a Veep got added to a ticket that honestly couldn't stand the guy and ended up shipping him off to the wastelands (or worse, to foreign dignitaries' funerals), meaning the VP wasn't really part of any administration.

Historically, Vice Presidents meant so little outside of ticket balance. Few Presidents involved them in any ongoing projects within their administrations. A lot of that was because of the rise of the Cabinet: the Constitution allowed for 'advisors' to the President and from that arose the various Secretaries of departments such as State (foreign affairs), War (duh), Navy (sailing to war), Treasury (money!), Attorney General (lawsuits), and additional offices as the needs progressed. VPs were not included in that setup since their duties to the Senate could interfere, but also because early on the Presidents didn't want to hear from their Veeps that often. As a result, Vice Presidents did little. The office was pretty much where political careers went to die. Teddy Roosevelt once sent a noisy chandelier to his VP's office so it would keep him awake. The only times they ever mattered were when Presidents died. And even then, most of them found themselves alienated by their own parties because their ideologies conflicted with whatever majority remained in power (SEE John Tyler and Andrew Johnson). Few Vice Presidents distinguished themselves until Roosevelt did in the 1900s, and that was by sheer force of will on his part.

The Twentieth Century was pretty much when Vice Presidents became more important, or at least more noticeable. A lot of it had to do with the U.S.'s growing international role, especially regarding wartime. Legend had it Truman was added to the ticket in 1944 because FDR's frail health threatened to allow his then-VP Henry Wallace to perhaps succeed him and party leaders feared his pro-communist leanings. Post-WWII world politics quickly formed a new Cold War, and now all of a sudden who the Vice President was meant a lot more. The need to quickly establish a chain of succession in the face of nuclear attack meant the Vice President got invited to a few more meetings at the Oval Office than before. It also led to the 25th Amendment, which codified the Presidential succession, made the VP slot more important than ever before. Subsequent Vice Presidential candidates now had to appear qualified to lead this nation in case of catastrophe.

You'd think with everything I'd just pointed out in the last paragraph that I've just disproved my own argument against having a Vice President anymore. Well, the thing is, I've got to set up the opposing argument so I can knock it down. :-) You see, while in theory it's necessary to qualify the Vice President to be fit for office, in practice it's been more headache than anything else.

For example, the first true administration that had to deal with the 25th Amendment was Nixon's in 1968. That had Spiro Agnew as his Vice President. His qualification for the office was that he wasn't Nelson Rockefeller. His replacement was Gerald Ford in 1973, and his qualification was that he wasn't Richard Nixon. It wasn't until Mondale under Carter's administration that a VP had an office at the White House, and under Reagan Bush the Elder found things to do (although not many people would testify much about that). But otherwise those two did okay as Veeps that could, if called upon, to step up to the plate and lead.

And then Bush nominated Dan Quayle to be his Veep in 1988. I'm sorry, but... There's a Bloom County strip where they try to force Bill the Cat to sweat, and they shout "President Quayle!" at him, and of course the damn cat sweats his ass off. That's the best way I can describe this to you. Actually, there's a better way I can describe this: just take one look at George W. Bush's entire administration and picture Quayle instead of Dubya sitting there in the Oval Office. I still think Clinton won out in 1992 because he could point to his choice Al Gore and say "I chose smarter." Well, that and the fact that the anti-tax crowd abandoned Bush the Elder, but still...

The thing that has really turned me against the whole idea of there being a Vice President has been Dick Cheney's role in the Dubya administration. To be honest, has any previous Veep have this kind of control inside of a President's administration before? Worse, Cheney has used his position to hide his activities behind the President's aegis. For a time, he even argued that the Vice President's unique position of serving between the White House (as VP) and Congress (as Senate President) meant he didn't have to answer to either branch: Cheney only backed down when Congress called his bluff and threatened to de-fund his office. And even now, he still refuses to answer to anyone regarding his role in various scandals (refusal to disclose meetings with energy business leaders, the Plame incident, Torture memos, his ties to businesses involved with the Iraqi occupation, stuff like that). Under normal circumstances, his ass would have been impeached years ago. Or if Dubya had any balls ('cause if it was me, and I had an underling saying he didn't answer to anybody... I'd have called that idiot before me and said "Dude. You answer to me. You're fired."), or a sense of being his own man, he'd have reined that Dick in.

When Cheney pulled that "Vice President as a Fourth Branch" BS, I seriously wondered "do we need that job anymore?" And the more I thought about it, the more I realize we really don't need a Vice President anymore.

For one thing, the 25th amendment that established a chain of succession to the Presidency now allows others to fill the role of successor (House Speaker, Senate Pro Tempore, then the Cabinet Secretaries). You can take the VP out of that equation and nothing major would be wrong: the House Speaker may still be from an opposing party, but the Speaker is still a major elected official heading a majority party in the House so it's not as though a vastly unpopular person would take over in case of emergency. And also, if there were an attack that would have gotten both the President and the Speaker (usually at the State of the Union address), it would get the Vice President anyway since he's got to attend as well to represent the Senate. There will still be a designated survivor sitting somewhere safe and ready to go under the 25th.

As pointed out earlier, there wasn't a need for a Vice President for political input anyway: the President had the Cabinet Secretaries for that. The only reason VPs became more important during the 20th Century was due to the Cold War and the need for rapid response in the face of nuclear war with the Commies. But the fall of the Soviet Union, and the increasing odds that the major powers WON'T go to war (even war with China is unlikely, even over something like Taiwan isn't worth it), has lessened the role of the Veep as a Cold War Warrior-to-be.

The other thing Vice Presidents had as value were as ticket balancers for election campaigns. But let's face it, why bother? If someone won the nomination for the Presidency from his/her party, it was because a majority of party members liked their chances to win the office. If the minority faction, usually the more extreme elements of said party, have a problem with it they have nowhere really to go. Just look at the 1948 election: Truman's Democratic Party splintered into THREE factions that year, in the face of a relatively unified Republican campaign... and Truman still won, even with the Dixiecrats pulling Southern states away from him. You could blame the GOP for not running an effective campaign, but let's consider that the Dem factions were smaller in number and power than they thought they were. Truman was able to appeal to a broader base of voters than they could.

Another thing the extremist factions need to consider is that if they flee to a third party, much in the way Far Leftists fled to Nader for the 2000 election, it's not going to win you the White House, it may in fact hurt your original party's candidate instead and put into the Presidency a guy you would hate even more. To the Far Right people groaning about McCain, thinking you can flee to someone else come Convention time, and to the Clintonites groaning about Obama, thinking that your Holiest of Holies Hillary "deserved" the nomination, shut up. You go running elsewhere and you'll guarantee the other guy wins it.

So why even bother placating the extremists in either party with a Vice Presidency nomination? Answer: you don't need to. Your party has a candidate for President: NOW RUN! If I went to McCain and Obama and told them they didn't need to worry over a vetting process to select a running mate, and that they could run their own campaign for the Presidency without having to worry about the clueless hacks they'd otherwise put on their tickets, they'd both gladly run off to their next thousand-dollar dinner fund-raisers and never look back.

To be honest, the only sticking point about getting rid of the office of the Vice President is over the one true duty that office entails: the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. Given the structure of the place (2 Senators per state) means an even count of Senators no matter what: the odds are there that ties can happen. However, there is a solution, albeit convoluted: get a Secretary from the Cabinet to serve as Senate President and perform the tie-breaking vote as needed. Given the role of the Senate in approving treaties, it makes sense the Cabinet position that could serve the role would be the Secretary of State. Other choices like Defense or Treasury are possible. In case of there being any conflict of interest, the Senate can nominate an alternate tie-breaker beforehand, such as during the nomination process of the President's incoming administration.

Viola. There's no more need for a Vice President to exist.

Doesn't it feel so much better? Like a breath of fresh air... ahhhh...

But of course nobody reads this blog and everything else I've tried to find online about other people arguing for the end of the Vice President's office can't be recovered. So that said, if I had control of the vetting process for both parties... who would I go for as VP on both tickets?

Stay tuned for the next post. This one's already too long.

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