By Jeremy Lott
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Joe Biden: harmless second banana or threat to the Republic?
The framers of the Constitution got many things right. But when they got things wrong, they were seriously off. Compromising on slavery, for instance. That's a bad one. But creating the vice presidency ranks high on their list of blunders as well.
Unlike slavery, though, vice presidents are still with us. Is it time to end that?
Fourteen of our 44 presidents started on the bottom of the ticket, a high proportion with ill effects on American politics. The vice presidency has provided a springboard to the nation's highest office for individuals unlikely to have made it there on their own.
From 1952 to 1972, only one election went by without Richard Nixon on the national ballot. For all his legislative smarts, Lyndon Johnson was an awkward bully who turned off many voters. George H.W. Bush was an also-ran who never would have reached the Oval Office had Ronald Reagan not kept the seat warm for him. (And would George W. have made it if his father hadn't?)
The vice presidency has also put troubling and divisive men only a heartbeat away. Aaron Burr, Henry Wallace, Al Gore and Dick Cheney came too close for comfort.
Sure, a few vice presidents who get the top job do it well. (Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman come to mind.) But the downsides outweigh the standouts. That's not surprising, since the office was poorly thought out and has been subject to three constitutional amendments (the 12th, 20th and 25th, for those keeping score).
In Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton admitted that the office "has been objected to as superfluous, if not mischievous" but argued that it was needed to break tie votes in the Senate. But some state legislatures have a clear alternative rule: If it ties, it fails.
It would be better if the president's understudy were separately elected by voters, or better yet, if the office simply disappeared. For all the attention their campaign-time selections garner, few voters cast their ballots based on the vice-presidential candidate -- even though that person has a nearly one in three chance of going all the way.
Jeremy Lott is the author of "The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency."