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Why Do We Need A Vice President?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007
I mean, honestly? What's the point?

The position of Vice President is a constitutional afterthought that has become a nuisance at best and a serious problem at worst. Dick Cheney has done the most damage, of course, but he isn't responsible for the constitutional disarray generated by the existence of a sub-President. I fail to see any substantial advantages and a number of bothersome disadvantages.

The arguments for a Vice-Presidency are weak at best. First, it designates an official successor to the President, a successor who is privy to the inner workings of the White House. Second, it gives the President a useful alter-ego when he/(she?)can't be somewhere. I can't think of a third.

To dispense with the proposed advantages:
1) We can easily designate someone else as a temporary official successor, for example the Secretary of State, who would have knowledge of the most crucial elements of White House policy. Also, how many VP's have been cut out of the loop on vast areas of policy?

2) Um, why do we need an extra office for this? Aren't there a bunch of people working for the White House already?

Now let me address the disadvantages of a Vice-Presidency. There is the obvious expense and the blurring of the separation of powers, of course - neither which I think are serious problems. More importantly, the existence of a VP gives President a way to nominate their successor, greatly strengthening their power at the expense of the voters and the party. Presidential nominees have pretty much unilateral capacity to select a running mate, and Vice Presidents are almost always prohibitive favorites for the White House in future elections because of their "quasi-incumbent" status. This effectively excludes other candidates from contention, and gives the President an undue influence over future nominees. In addition, Vice Presidents have the ability to usurp considerable amounts of power without much public accountability. Impeachment has been greatly weakened as a political tool by the 1998 fiasco, and let's be honest - the voters really don't pay much attention to who a candidate's running mate is. So we have a de facto unelected official with steadily growing powers and an inside track on the Presidency. Sounds great, doesn't it?

If I had magic powers, I would simply abolish the office. Make the Secretary of State the Acting President until the Congress can select a replacement. We should just consign this absurd position to history's dustbin.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:21 AM
  • I can think of a few other very good reasons for keeping the Vice-President position.

    1. The Executive Branch is so large and unwieldy that the VP acts like a Prime Minister to help run the government. This was the logic behind Cheney's selection on the Bush ticket in 2000.

    2. The VP represents the party's ideological base. While the president is forced to campaign and promote legislation from the center, the VP is able to keep the president's "feet to the fire", therefore ensuring that the President can win re-election.

    3. The VP is the president's confidante. Whereas all the other cabinet heads have their own responsibilities and constituents, the VP is the only office that helps provide the president with constant feedback.

    4. The office of the president of the senate is legislatively important because of the strong possibility of a tie on critical legislation when the country is divided.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 7:58 PM  
  • 1) There's already a chief of staff for that

    2) Why do I care about the President's political fortunes or ideological base? I don't think they should be able to run for 2 terms, and the President is supposed to represent ALL the people.

    3) Again, this is what staff is for - staff that can be fired, unlike VP's

    4) Um, in the House a bill that is tied doesn't pass. The Senate could work the same way. Or add an extra Senator, giving D.C. some representation.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 12:19 AM  
  • "2) Why do I care about the President's political fortunes or ideological base? I don't think they should be able to run for 2 terms, and the President is supposed to represent ALL the people." Do you really mean this? How many terms should a president get? A president's political fortunes and ideological base are a huge component of modern presidential politics.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 12:52 AM  
  • Yes I really mean it. My point is precisely that "presidential politics" has become the whole of politics, radically unbalancing the democracy and undermining the separation of powers - as well as our liberties. Congress is supposed to determine domestic policy - the President role is to suggest general policies (which Congress can ignore) and provide a negative check on Congress. That is all (when it comes to domestic policy). The White House should lose half of its staff - at least, just to start with. The Senate should have a far greater role in the setting of foreign policy, appointments, and oversight.

    Would limiting presidents to one term, diminishing their role in domestic policy and checking it in foreign affairs, and reducing its institutional capacity diminish the office? Yes. But see, I think democracies shouldn't be flirting with one-man rule - particularly when we have a serious dynasty problem.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 8:54 AM  
  • You have the right solution, but the wrong problem. Contrary to popular belief, we do not have a serious dynasty problem. What we have is a serious class problem, with dynastic politics constituting a product of the class problem. Dynasties don't exist because people vote solely on the basis of name-recognition. Dynasties exist because the chief fund-raisers raise money solely on the basis of name recognition, and the money translates into advertising that translates somewhat into votes. A one-term presidency won't solve that problem, nor will cutting presidential staff. What will solve the problem is publicly funded elections at least at the federal level. That's at least as drastic, and consequential, as defunding the presidency and staff, and you have focused on this issue a lot in the past. It's important to not get distracted from the class issues with the red herring of the constitutional structure of government.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 9:14 PM  
  • Of course we have a tremendous problem with wealth distribution and need public financing - something I've spoken about many times on this blog.

    But this has nothing directly to do with the steady accretion of power in executive branches at every level of government. Mayors, Governors, Presidents - you name it, they've steadily gained ground against the legislative branch.

    Now when you combine the trend (for whatever reason) of dynastic politics at EVERY level of government, with growing executive power, you have a very, very dangerous mix.

    I think that Presidents should be relatively weak vis a vis legislatures, but even if you think there should be a balance, you have to admit that this balance has been completely distorted over the last several decades.

    So yes, I think we should weaken the Presidency.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 10:32 PM  
  • Of course this balance has been distorted in the past several decades, for 2 very good reasons. (1) Nuclear weapons, and (2) superpower status. A weak presidency with a strong legislative branch is a condition that happens now ONLY when there is no major security threat, such as during the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. The threat of terrorism is nowhere near the same level as the threat of the Soviet Union, but the U.S. is a superpower simply because it has atomic weaponry. It is impossible to place such power in the legislative branch or the judiciary. We need a strong presidency because we cannot take nuclear responsibility lightly, especially in a world of nuclear proliferation. As long as the American president has sole authority to launch a nuclear attack on any scale, the presidency will remain the center of American politics.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 11:37 PM  
  • Yes, and the enhanced presidency has done such a wonderful job at protecting our liberties in the meantime, hasn't it? And I think you grossly exaggerate the threat, or the requirements of a strong presidency to protect against nuclear war. Why should the (extremely remote) prospect of war require that the President have sole discretion over war-making, when executives by their nature are always quicker to start wars that might escalate? Why does it mean he should dominate diplomacy? And you forget that my main argument is with respect to DOMESTIC policy, which has absolutely nothing to do with external security.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 6:43 AM  
  • "I think you grossly exaggerate the threat, or the requirements of a strong presidency to protect against nuclear war. Why should the (extremely remote) prospect of war require that the President have sole discretion over war-making, when executives by their nature are always quicker to start wars that might escalate?" Even a cursory examination of the past 60 years (since the start of the Cold War) shows that American presidents have been very good at averting nuclear war, and that the risk has only increased. The National Security State and the Military-Industrial Complex are the greatest threats to our liberty, but Eisenhower largely kept them in check in the 1950s. The Cuban Missile Crisis is the closest we have come to WWIII, and Kennedy was adept at avoiding that. Johnson and Nixon were bigger warmongers, but even Nixon was able to establish Detente with the Soviet Union. Reagan built up the military, but never once sparked a hot war. The Cold War actually witnessed rather timid executives, with the exception of Vietnam, based on the logic of matually assured destruction.

    So yes, I have a great deal of confidence in the executive branch to handle security threats. The division between security policy and domestic policy largely explains why the Country voted for a Democratic congress for 40 years (1954-1994) but alternated between Republican and Democratic presidents from 1948 to 1992 with respect to external threats on the basis of how capable presidential candidates would be to respond to international crises. The age of terrorism has certainly placed domestic and security policy in the same political arena, but thet nuclear threat is still real with North Korea, Iran, and China.

    Nuclear War is still a significant risk with "loose nukes". The president alone is more able to respond quickly to international crisis. That justifies a political environment centered around the presidency.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 11:51 AM  
  • Oh dear, not the "mommy party, daddy party" hypothesis. It's bizarre that you elide the end of the Cold War. Yes there is some small risk of nuclear attack in the present day, but as a principally law enforcement matter, it hardly requires an all-powerful executive. The "loose nuke" problem bears little resemblance to the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the minimum, we should have seen a substantial decline in Presidential authority since 1990. Instead, we've seen the general trend to further concentration of power - which tells me that it has less to do with external security threats (which are always hyped by those in the White House) and more to do with the president's superior ability to manipulate public opinion and simple habit.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 4:48 PM  
  • Oh, and by the way - I'd rather be free and dead than unfree and alive. All true democrats would be. If security is all one cares about, then one is halfway to tyranny already.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 4:49 PM  
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