Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Imperial Vice-Presidency

Harry Truman famously commented that the vice-presidency wasn't worth "a bucket of warm spit." Through much of the country's history the office has been filled by obscure political personages, soon forgotten. Originally the vice-president was elected independently of the president, the ability to cast the deciding vote on Senate ties another facet of the balance of power. In modern times the "two party system" (not a constitutionally mandated system, just a convention that could and probably will someday change) has made a chief function of the vice-president to be the "running mate" in elections, and for most of the twentieth century the idea was to "balance the ticket," at first mostly for regional balance (when we were a more provincial country) and later mostly to assuage ideological factions (leading to right-wing Republican VPs and left-wing Democratic ones). In the age of the endless campaign, the vice-president has frequently been a campaign hatchet-man, doing dirty work for the president.
Today, however, the vice-presidency has evolved into a powerful office. This is not just because of the relationship between President Bush and VP Cheney. The same evolution was evident in the vice-presidency of Al Gore, for example. Since WW II, and during the Cold War, the presidency itself has become increasingly powerful. The exigencies of the security state have caused more power to be concentrated into the hands of the president (the late Arthur Schlesinger's "Imperial Presidency"). The whole executive branch has increased in power and importance, including the office of the vice-presidency. Today, the vice-president is the presumptive party nominee-in-waiting, Mr. Cheney's abstention notwithstanding. Speaking of Mr. Cheney brings me to today's point: he has the idea, based on his experiences in the post-Watergate White House in the 1970s, that executive power was diminished at that time, and a noble institutional project is to try to restore presidential prerogative. He has this exactly backwards. The current president-as-emperor is a result of the Cold War and America's subsequent (and very likely fleeting) role as the "hyperpower." It distorts American foreign policy, that is clearly to be a matter of consensus between the branches according to the constitution, which grants Congress the power to declare war. What we need is a strong and aggressive Congress.

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