July 18th, 2008
07:30 AM ET

The ethics of picking a vice president

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/07/18/art.mccainobama.jpg]
Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
AC360° Contributor
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

Filed under: Bruce Weinstein • Ethics • Raw Politics
soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. J.V.hodgson

    Dear Bruce,
    As the world becomes more complex and equally so increasingly smaller, then for me the TEAM of President and Vice President , becomes increasingly important.
    At various times as National Presidential elections occur the choice of a VP should depend on Americas needs at the time, so you could say either Obama or McCain need someone with good economic or business skills this time, or that Obama needs a military expert and McCain an economist. the point is that it changes over time, and does not follow that a VP should be the same for a second Presidential term, thats the quid pro quo for the following.
    The essence is trust, honour and respect between the two and letting the House and Senate know, that where I as President allow the VP to speak , hey guys listen to both of us we are one in these matters.
    He as VP gets appropriate contact with the executive branch, which is opposite to the current basically non entity that is practice, simply usually a choice of who will bring swing votes.
    That hurts democratically, because if the chosen teams policies are not good enough to win, politically motivated selection to win a swing or swing states demeans the intelligence of the voter.
    The major change needed in the American political system is that winner by state takes all so far as the Elected president is concerned, the president should be who got the most popular votes.
    And ban the Lobbyists, and Pork barrel politics, concentrate on the issues not buying ( pork barrel) or allowing special/private or commercial interests(lobbying) of house or senatorial votes.
    In other words debate the issue with humanity, humility, common sense, and a government of the people for the people and by the people and not any one secular, religious, special interest group or anything else.

    July 20, 2008 at 4:22 am |
  2. pauline dodd

    obama should pick hillary clinton for a vp ....
    she is the best canidate for the job ..... it wouldn't be right for him to pick another lady ...hillary brought a lot of women to the table ..i ..for one would have voted for her .... she is very smart ...people may say what they want .. i voted for bill clinton [2] times . he was a good president ..if he could run again .. there is no doubt in my mind he would be elected .. tks polly from tn ..

    July 19, 2008 at 11:29 pm |
  3. Paula from Georgia

    I think Obama's choice should be Hillary Clinton. If he doesn't choose her then when the women who voted for during the primaries should do it at the convention.

    The only reason, he won't is because the press decided a long time ago, that they were better than Bill Clinton-didn't take to kindly to him. Moving up to running for President or anything else. You guys decided – There were negatives. If you can't find something. You Nic Pick. We like them.

    In Bill's case, At least Bill got the Country's Bills paid. Everybody paid for it through their taxes. No special treatment for any one. Just what Did they do to you personally? For you to say, She can't be a Vice President?



    July 19, 2008 at 11:16 pm |
  4. Lamont austin

    is it not obvious who the next pres. should be. not some old guy that can only relate to his elitest clan, how can they say Obama is an elitest when the rest of you are acting that way. There are people that are not voting because Obama is black and thats the only reason, i've heard people put the theory of "hope" when we all ahve hoped for something at one time or the other. I think Hillary should be the vice pres. for Obama but when she said she was suspending her run for pres. that to me seemed to be very elitest, she couldnt even take a loss and sit in the losers bracket, it was like she said to herself i wont stop the campaign because something might happen.
    (Obama's assasination) I think the only one worthy to be by Obama's side in november is Richardson. He seems just as honest as Obama
    and more honest then all them other politions but probabillity it will be him is nill. is because he's mexican. For the 1st time americans are concidering a non white pres. is that really american.

    July 19, 2008 at 10:08 pm |
  5. James Dylan

    I wonder how many times a day Bruce writes or says ethics a day?
    Anyways, the candidates are going to choose their running mate based on their requirements and ours; who will be the most helpful before and after the election process. Period. It's not a complicated theory to grasp.
    Bruce is absolutely correct in saying that ethics is not an observation of the world, but how it might, and I'll say might again, best be. There is nothing radical in this article in this article, but yes maybe a touch naive.
    So let me say something radical. Suppose democracy is not the best form of governing? Perhaps an extremely intelligent, ethical dictator who always does what is best for his country would be the most ethical. Or term limits of Presidents are actually unethical? For example; if the country is running great and now he must step aside to allow a lesser person take the reins. Clinton to Bush is one example and their are many more in our history. Should the people not have the choice of who they continue to want as their leader? Is not the forced changing of our leaders not some form of personality disorder to the rest of the world? Does it not, philosophically, force us backwards or at least slow down progress at times? To drastically change paths in an instance is not always the best of options; or as Bruce would say, unethical.
    Of course to make these kinds of decisions we would have to process a better understanding of what is actually ethical, good, best. This form of philosophy, ethics, continually fails as it relies to much on public opinion, which has been called private laziness in some philosophical circles. It lacks intellectual courage and pays no attention to the human will. Maybe it's just Bruce?

    July 19, 2008 at 1:08 am |
  6. Rosie

    One can not be a good President, accept he has a vision for the country. Therefore he would pick someone who has the same vision, and together, the two of them would become a treasure to their country.
    And for those, of us, who see Obama with the eye of the heart, know that he has the vision that will bring about, not just a better America, but alsoa better world.
    So who will his VP be? The one we least expect!

    July 18, 2008 at 9:30 pm |
  7. lampe

    I think Sen. McCain should pick Sen. Clinton. Myself and alot more pissed of Democratic women would be more than happy to vote for them.

    July 18, 2008 at 8:18 pm |
  8. Mari, Salt Lake City

    I agree........ Sen. Obama should vet David Gergen! He would be brilliant!

    July 18, 2008 at 7:56 pm |
  9. Kent Fitzsimmons,Kewanee, IL


    David Gergen is awesome. It is no wonder he has served so many Presidents so well. I agree............If I was Obama I would ask him at the least to be an advisor if not more..........he is brilliant.

    July 18, 2008 at 7:51 pm |
  10. Robin Sprague

    I would like to see you debate the possibility that the Bush Adm, has changed (publicly at least) his approach to both Iran and Iraq for the purpose of actually narrowing the differences between McCain and Obama so if events begin to support Obama's plans before the election voters will not think McCain is totally out to lunch. He has decided to sit down with the envoy from Iran, though without the spirit of negotiation and has decided that perhaps our men in Iraq should begin to leave within a time range. Or perhaps it is because Bush wants credit for ending our participation in Iraq and getting a resolution with Iran instead allowing Obama to get it. Thanks You.

    July 18, 2008 at 7:51 pm |
  11. Donald Williams

    Omg Cindy only repeat something she has seen on TV or heard from McCain. She do not research the information on repeat it

    July 18, 2008 at 7:46 pm |
  12. Ratna, New York, NY

    Obviously, that Obama and McCain have opposing views on the Iraqi war and foreign affairs, it is important that each chose a vice-president who supports their ideas.

    July 18, 2008 at 7:02 pm |
  13. Larry

    Doesn't the VP have to have the same agenda as the prez? Picking a VP that is not 100% in line with the prez on everything could be difficult, especially if the vp is called to replace the prez.
    When JFK sent troops to Vietnam, would he have wanted Johnson to stay in Vietnam?

    July 18, 2008 at 4:13 pm |
  14. Teresa, OH

    @ Cindy: you're not cynical at all. You speak the truth. It is appreciated. : )

    July 18, 2008 at 4:09 pm |
  15. Alex

    For me, ethics has littel to do with choosing a Vice-Presidential running mate. My casting a vote for one of the two "primary" candidates could now well rest on who picks who they pick as their running mate. Both the Presidential candidates at this time do little to make me feel warm and fuzzy. Right now, Mickey Mouse has a better chance of getting my vote than either McCann or Obama.

    July 18, 2008 at 3:00 pm |
  16. Kent Fitzsimmons,Kewanee, IL

    Annie Kate..........

    I usually don't agree with you, but I like that idea. McCain is a good guy.........Obama would do well with him as his VP.................

    July 18, 2008 at 2:47 pm |
  17. EJ (USA)

    Or maybe David Gergen will serve as an advisor (again) to President Obama. If I were Obama I'd want him closeby as an advisor.

    July 18, 2008 at 12:56 pm |
  18. EJ (USA)

    I think the Obama campaign should also vet David Gergen.

    July 18, 2008 at 12:55 pm |
  19. Cindy

    Of course they will pick a running mate that best helps fill them out to be the best. But not to be the best for us or the country, oh no!! To be the best to help them win this election! That IMO is what they both will be looking for! I guess you can just call me cynical! LOL


    July 18, 2008 at 9:50 am |
  20. Annie Kate

    In the first few Presidential elections after the adoption of our Constitution in 1783, the vice president was the loser of the Presidential race. I guess the founding fathers thought that at least that way the people had a say on who was #1 and who was #2 but also it required bipartisan working together for the good of the country and its citizens. I know that this idea wouldn't fly today but that working together bit is sure attractive. The example might even inspire Congress!

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    July 18, 2008 at 8:37 am |