AN ESSAY BY EUGENE McCARTHY
Abolish the Vice-Presidency
The current case of the involvement, or over-involvement of Vice-President
Gore in the fund-raising activities of the last presidential campaign underscores
the need to abolish the vice-presidential office. The last attempt to do
this occurred in 1803, when a Senate vote to do so failed by a vote of 18
to 12. In 1804 the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, providing that
the president and vice-presidential candidates should run as team representatives
of one party, was adopted. Before this amendment was adopted, the vice president
was the person who ran second in the electoral college vote. Thus the principal
opponent of the elected president was in line to succeed in case of death,
resignation, or impeachment and conviction.
Throughout the 18th century and well into the 19th, the office of vice president
was not highly regarded. In 1848 Daniel Webster rejected a proposal that
he accept his party's nomination for the office, informing his daughter
that he was the first farmer in his area, and saying; "I am content
with this, unless I should be called to be first, elsewhere, where I can
do more good."
At the turn into the next century, Mr Dooley wondered why "lvrybody
runs away fr'm a nommynation f'r vice-president as if it was an indictment
be th' gran' jury." Even Richard Nixon after serving in the office
called it a"hollow shell - the most ill-conceived, poorly defined position
in the American political system." How the office developed is not
clear. The Constitutional Convention left few notes behind to explain, and
Alexander Hamilton noted in The Federalist Papers, that the office has been
objected to, as "superfluous, if not mischievous."
There are at least three good reasons for abolishing the office:
First: Having a vice-presidential candidate on the ticket clutters up the
election campaign, offering the voters an apparent choice, when in fact
only the presidential candidate, if he wins, and lives, will be in a position
to direct and significantly affect policy. A ticket made up of two unbalanced
persons, does not make a balanced ticket.
Second: The existence of the office puts persons who would not necessarily
be the best choice, in line for the presidency. Recent examples include
persons who quite probably would not have made it to the presidency, except
by way of the vice-presidency, notably Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon,
and left the country under risk of having Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle on
the presidential ballot .
Third: The office not only can put undeserving and ill qualified persons
in line for the presidency, but wastes the abilities of good politicians
for four to eight years, years during which he or she might serve effectively
in some other office. Examples include Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey.
Service in the office may seriously impair the person's chances of being
elected, if nominated, either because of failures on the part of his principal,
or because of things that he or she did in service of a president.
Lyndon Johnson inherited the Vietnam War. Hubert Humphrey, who said that
he was the agent of the president, and that what the president stood for
he stood for, was held responsible for the Johnson record; It is unlikely
that Spiro Agnew would have been helped if he had become the Republican
nominee, by his service as what was labeled, "Nixon's Nixon",
in his intemperate denunciation of media, students, intellectuals, politicians,
and other individuals or groups.
Walter Mondale certainly was not helped in his campaign of 1984 because
of his association with the Carter Administration, and his description of
Carter in the 1980 campaign as "honest, caring, intelligent, brilliant,
committed, courageous, experienced" almost too many adjectives for
one sentence or one person to carry. It is excusable for a vice-president
to go to some lengths in describing a president, since the role of a vice
president is primarily one of modifying - somewhat in the way a tennis pro
functions, not so much as to improve his clients performance, as to make
them look good and feel satisfied with themselves.
George Bush, like Lyndon Johnson, accepted the vice-presidency after failing
to get the presidential nomination of their respective parties. Lyndon suffered
in his service to the president. Bush in trying to establish, not that he
was different from Ronald Reagan, but that as the administration ran on
for eight years, that he had become another Ronald Reagan, even in the extreme
of adopting the president's language, in such usages as "Read my lips."
The case of Albert Gore is especially complicated. First because he must
bear the ordinary burdens of the vice-presidency, in answering for the Clinton
record, and also for his part in the campaign of 1996, especially as a fund-raiser,
either under the direction or at the request of the president; or because
he read the desires of the president, in the manner of the knights who dispatched
Thomas a'Becket, because they knew, or thought they knew, what King Henry
wanted; Or in the manner of Admiral Poindexter, in the Oliver North affair,
knowing, as he said, what the president thought, wrought what he described
as "a deniable, plausible plot." And second, because of new and
different disabilities, some of which may be the consequences of the two-term
limitation on presidential service, which leaves the vice-president exposed
as a most likely candidate to succeed the president, and the president politically
free to conduct his administration, without full concern for succession
or party continuity.
There is a further difficulty arising from the fact that Gore suffers from
a special kind of dependency relationship with Clinton, a relationship which
calls for a special loyalty, which marked the relationship of both Humphrey
and Mondale with the presidents they served with. The common experience
was this: All three had made previous runs for the presidency and failed;
Humphrey in 1960 against John Kennedy; Mondale in 1974 when he tested the
waters, and withdrew before the election of 1976; and Albert Gore who made
an early bid for the nomination in 1988. In each case the rejection was
so clear as to dampen, if not destroy, presidential hopes. Being chosen
as running mate, was in effect a political revival, accompanied by new hopes
for the presidency, and elicitating loyalty, or dependency, comparable to
that , which according to Chinese legend, was expected of a person whose
life had been saved, towards his savior.
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