The recent presidential election should have taught us once and for all a great political truth: the vice presidency is a mischievous office that should be abolished, OR at least there should be a new method of choosing vice presidents.
The first issue is George Bush. Regardless of how any of us see Bush's politics or his qualifications for president, the fact is he was considered heir apparent to Reagan simply because he was vice president. Even before the primary campaign began, George Bush dominated the polls because he had been the most visible candidate over the past eight years and he was identified with a popular president.It is true that he still had to run a credible campaign in order to defeat Robert Dole and other Republicans in the primaries and then Democrat Michael Dukakis in the final election, but it simply is not fair that one person should start the campaign with the kind of advantage that is naturally afforded the vice president.
Although Bush is the first sitting vice president since Martin Van Buren in 1836 to succeed immediately to the presidency via election, all vice presidents are automatically considered front-runners for president and several have eventually become president by running in a succeeding campaign.
We don't need a vice president, except to break a tie in the U.S. Senate, and his responsibilities are purely ceremonial as decreed by the president. President Jimmy Carter used his vice president, Walter Mondale, more than any other chief executive had ever done before, and it seemed at first that Ronald Reagan was doing the same with Bush. But the campaign this year revealed that Bush played an almost non-existent role in presidential decision making and, if his account is to be believed, did not even know about the hostages for arms deal.
Second, George Bush selected as his running mate one of the least qualified men in American politics. Although Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, for instance, were very interested in the office, Bush went to Dan Quayle, apparently because he wanted someone who would be properly deferential toward the president. The result is that we have as vice president of the United States a man who is peculiarly undistinguished and unqualified for the post.
Dan Quayle comes from a wealthy family, which allowed him certain opportunities people from a lower class would not receive. His college and law school grades were so bad that he embargoed them during the campaign to keep them from being revealed. He ran for the U.S. Senate after watching Robert Redford's movie "The Candidate," and realized some notable parallels between his life and the main character's. He was especially impressed with his own physical appearance and is said to have considered himself more attractive than Redford.
His career in the Senate has been marked by no significant achievement. Gail Sheehy, a noted student of presidential politics, regards him as the male equivalent of the "dumb blonde" who is plucked out of obscurity to become famous for no justifiable reason. Quayle's own father was shocked that Bush would choose him as his running mate and commented cynically that his son majored in "booze and broads" in college.
Quayle's performance in a debate with the venerable senator from Texas, Lloyd Bentsen, was embarrassing at best. He refused to answer many questions directly, and repeated himself shamelessly as he spouted programmed statements he had prepared as if they were minispeeches. In fact, the Bush campaign relegated him to obscurity in the campaign, deliberately sending him to "safe" Republican strongholds, mostly elite high schools around the country where he could stay out of trouble.
In his final 30 minutes of purchased television time, Bush himself failed even to mention Quayle's name, and the vice presidential candidate never appeared in any of the film footage included in the program. Surely, this is an admission by the president-elect that his running mate was an unfortunate mistake.
So what do we do about it? We could, as well-known historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has said, simply eliminate the office of vice president. If the president died in office, a non-elected public servant such as the secretary of state would become temporary president until a new president could be elected within 90 days. Such a system has served France very well. Then we would be sure that the person who became president was someone the people preferred rather than someone the previous president inadvertently selected.
And if we insist on retaining the vice presidency we should take the power of choice away from the presidential candidate, and simply select as vice president that candidate who came in second at the convention or, in other words, "the second best person" to be president. This reform is long overdue. We may have to endure a "President Quayle" before we realize the overwhelming need.