Vice Presidents and Lieutenant Governors: Should They Be Abolished?
An op-ed in the LA Times (link via Freakonomics) advocates that we abolish the position of vice president. As I am required to do, I shall Missouri-fy the question and ask it about the lieutenant governorship as well. Gov. Palin’s comments about the proper role of the VP in the recent debate here at Wash U. have also placed the utility of her prospective office in the spotlight. Should these positions be abolished?
The author of the Times piece dislikes the VP office for several reasons, but primarily because presidential candidates select running mates based largely on political benefits instead of leadership qualities, so the nation is damaged when one of those people moves up to be the president after a death or impeachment. The author cites several examples in which, because of a death, the voters ended up with someone very different than the person they had elected. (The author does, however, make one blatant factual error that the Times corrected.) Because governors and lieutenant governors in Missouri do not run on the same ticket, part of that objection is made moot. The author also cites Mexico and France as countries with system similar to ours, that do not have VPs.
I do not agree with the author about the VP position — nor the lieutenant governor position, for that matter. Just because voters usually don’t put much weight into the quality of a VP candidate when they make their choices for president does not mean they can’t at least consider it. For each position, there are essentially two main jobs: cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate, and be available in the case of a death or impeachment (which we have come close to twice during the past 35 years). In years past, presiding over the Senate was also a large part of the job. That changed a long time ago in DC, and a few decades ago in Jeff City, as well, after a lawsuit between the majority Democrat senate and the new Republican lieutenant governor (Bill Phelps) was won by the senators.
As for France and Mexico, I love comparative politics, so I’ll dive in. As you may or may not know, most nations have a head of state and a head of government. For example, Britain has a queen and a prime minister. Nations without kings, no matter how little power they hold, generally choose to elect another official to hold a post — that might be called president — to serve as head of state. Germany and Israel are two examples of this. That post tends to have very little power, is mostly ceremonial, and usually goes to popular elected officials later in their careers. The United States is one of the only countries that combines both positions into one office.
Most nations also have bicameral legislatures, like ours. However, generally one house dominates the other. Historically, the House of Lords had a great deal more power than the House of Commons, but now the reverse is usually true. So, the leader of the House of Commons, or whatever it may be called, is the Prime Minister, and by far the most powerful politician. In the United States, both of our houses of Congress are comparable in power, so we don’t have a singular dominant politician. (Don’t even get me started on the Federal Reserve.) In short, because we don’t have a clearly marked other person to take over in case of a death (head of state for head of government, or vice versa), it behooves us to elect someone to be designated to fill that role, if required. The same goes for governors in the states.
France is interesting in comparison, because it is one of the few western democracies to maintain more power in its president than in the prime minister, although it does a have a prime minister who is very influential. If the president of France were to expire, the prime minister would be there to manage things in a way that the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate might not agree with each other on. As for Mexico, its system comes out of a long period of one-party rule, and it has a strict one-term limit, anyway. Historically, if its president died, you could count on another member of the one party to be quickly chosen to replace him. With a two-party system, this is different — but I’m no expert on Mexican politics, so I don’t know what to recommend.
This post is getting too long, but I want to correct one inconsistency in the Times author’s logic. He says we should abolish the VP post and designate the secretary of state to serve until we can elect a new president. But, without a VP, what does he think would happen to the office of secretary of state? That office would quickly become politicized, with pressure on candidates to name who they would select for it during the campaign, so that voters could judge them just as they do the VP. The idea that qualified diplomats and generals would continue to be chosen for secretary of state if it was designated to succeed the president is crazy. Same goes for any other position that could be made second in line. We are much better off keeping the VP, and the lieutenant governor, and allowing voters to consider it is much or as little as they want in their votes.