Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
The Ethics Guy®, BusinessWeek.com
Who should Senators Barack Obama and John McCain pick as their running mates? This is one of the most debated questions in the presidential campaign, but it shouldn’t be viewed as merely a strategic concern. Whenever we ask what someone should do, and the rights or well-being of others hangs in the balance, we are asking an ethical question. That’s why who our next vice president ought to be is an important ethical issue.
The Vice Presidency: Much Ado About Nothing?
The U.S. Constitution specifies two primary duties of the vice president: to be the first in the line of succession to the office of the Presidency and to preside over the Senate. Beyond these two responsibilities, however, the Constitution leaves the exact nature of the office open to the whims of the President, and up until the 20th century, vice presidents had little contact with the executive branch.
However, nine occupants of this office have succeeded to the presidency... (eight of whom did so because the president died in office, and the ninth, Gerald Ford, became president after Richard Nixon’s resignation). The possibility of a vice president becoming commander-in-chief cannot be taken lightly, but vice presidents have also played a significant role in government over the past 30 years. Walter F. Mondale was given his own West Wing office and frequent access to Jimmy Carter, notes Joel K. Goldstein, author of The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution; Al Gore was a strong No. 2 to Bill Clinton; and Dick Cheney has had a profound impact on environmental, energy, budget, tax, and foreign policy.
With so many critical issues before us now, including a flagging economy, rising food and energy prices, a housing crisis, almost 50 million citizens without health care insurance, and the ever-present danger of terrorism, it’s reasonable to think that the next president may follow in the tradition of having a vice president who plays a significant role in determining the direction of our country.
“Who is Most Likely to Help Me Win?”
Although the term “politics” used to refer to the study of how society should be structured, these days the focus seems to be on how to win delegates, which commercials are successful in appealing to various demographics, and other strategic concerns. Even the most idealistic among us, however, must realize that it would be foolish if not impossible to separate the practical from the philosophical. To paraphrase a comment CBS newsman Bob Schieffer once made: “To be a good president, you first have to become President.”
Nevertheless, for ethical reasons, the question of how a vice presidential pick would affect their electability cannot be Obama and McCain’s sole concern. Leaders shouldn’t pander to ignorance, foolishness, or prejudice, so just because a potential running mate could bring about victory, it doesn’t follow that he or she should be on the ticket. Increasing the odds of winning the election is a necessary condition for any vice presidential candidate, but ethically it is not sufficient.
What else matters, then? Let’s next consider another possibility from an ethical perspective.
“Who Will Complement Me the Best?”
There are many different leadership styles. Should Obama or McCain seek a future vice president whose leadership style is similar to his own?
Not necessarily. Some of the best decisions are borne not of peace but of conflict, the kind of healthy conflict that can occur when the decision maker is respectfully challenged by others. Yes, it might be easier to have a yes-man or -woman as VP, but with so much at stake for the country and the world, such a person might allow a troublesome decision to go unchallenged.
As I’ve noted in a previous column, criticizing a person’s position isn’t the same thing as criticizing that person, and the President of all people should not only accept criticism; he (or she) should welcome and encourage it. The mission of the President is a moral one: to make the best possible decision for the country, and having a vice president who will question the President and force him to do his best thinking is best for the country.
With this in mind, it becomes clear what the ultimate standard ought to be for choosing a running mate.
“Who Would Be Best for the Nation?”
This is the first and last question that Obama and McCain ought to ask themselves when narrowing the field of vice presidential candidates. Yes, it’s important to win the race, and finding someone who won’t shirk from speaking his or her mind is all to the good, but both of these factors must be in the service of, well, being of service to the country. If McCain or Obama believes that a particular candidate is not going to be the best vice president and potential successor to him, that candidate should simply not be considered, no matter how appealing he or she might be on the ticket.
What I’m proposing here may be radical, naïve, and out of touch with the way the modern world operates. But that’s OK. After all, ethics isn’t about describing the way the world is. It’s about considering how the world might be if we were to focus on the things that matter most. When thinking about filling the No. 2 spot, Obama and McCain should be thinking not only about victory for themselves in the short run, but about prosperity for the rest of us in the long run.
Editor's Note: Bruce Weinstein discusses ethics each Friday on “American Morning.” You can read more from Bruce at TheEthicsGuy.com
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