The Ethics of Picking a Vice-President

A running mate should be chosen on the basis of what's good for the nation, not just who will help get Obama or McCain elected

Who should be the running mates for Senators Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.)? 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 hang in the balance—we are asking an ethical question. And that's why the question of who our next Vice-President ought to be is an important ethical issue.

The Vice-Presidency: Much Ado About Nothing?

The Constitution specifies two primary duties of the Vice-President: to preside over the Senate and to be the first in the line of succession to the office of the Presidency. Beyond these 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.

Nine occupants of this office, however, 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's becoming Commander-in-Chief cannot be taken lightly, but Vice-Presidents have also played an important 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, 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 continue 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 can be structured (, 1/15/08), the focus these days 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 it would be foolish, if not impossible, to separate the practical from the philosophical. To paraphrase a comment of CBS newsman Bob Schieffer: "To be a good President, you first have to become President."

Nevertheless, for ethical reasons, the question of how a Vice-Presidential pick would help Obama's or McCain's electability cannot be the sole concern. Leaders shouldn't pander to ignorance, foolishness, or prejudice, so just because a potential running mate could bring about victory doesn't mean this person 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? 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 born not of peace but of conflict, the kind of healthy conflict that can occur when one person is supported by someone else who will challenge him. Yes, it might be easier to have a yes-man or yes-woman as Veep, 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 (, 3/18/08), criticizing a person's position isn't the same thing as criticizing that person, and Presidents, of all people, should not only accept criticism; they 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 candidates who won't shrink from speaking their 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 a person is not going to be the best Vice-President and best potential successor, that candidate should simply not be considered, no matter how appealing on the ticket.

What I'm proposing here may be radical, naive, and out of touch with the modern world. That's O.K. 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.

Lessons for Business and Beyond

Based on the above considerations, business executives and others in a leadership role would do well to heed the following when looking for and grooming a successor:

1. Keep your eyes on the prize, which is about helping the organization meet its mission, not burnishing your own reputation, doing a favor for a friend or family member, or the like. This means that serving the interests of your stakeholders should be your first consideration in all that you do, including finding someone to take over your job.

2. Embrace criticism, now and forever. It's a sign of strength, not weakness, to encourage people who are second in command to speak up when they think you're going off course. Having your ideas challenged from time to time will help make you a better leader and will lead to well-thought-out decisions.

3. Remember the most important question of all. It's not "How do we get from A to B?," but "Is B worth getting to in the first place?" For the organization to continue flourishing, your successor must share your commitment to doing the right thing for the right reasons.

It's not just McCain and Obama but all of us in leadership roles who should keep in mind that what it's all about is making a positive difference in the lives of others. This is why ethics must be a central concern—not an afterthought—when the time comes to find the best person to succeed us.

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