09 August 2012

The Ever-Exciting 12th Amendment

Not a whole lot of folks get hyped-up over the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, although there was an abortive attempt to deny Dick Cheney's right to serve as Vice-President under the amendment's "habitation clause." Nonetheless Joshua Hawley has written a piece (abstract here) about the political significance of the amendment. In short, Hawley argues that with the 1804 ratification of this amendment, American politics, at least presidential politics, changed substantially.

Hawley is certainly correct that the 12th Amendment recognized the political nature of the office of president, something the drafters (and ratifiers) of the original Constitution had not appreciated. With only George Washington in mind, one can understand why folks in 1787 could have conceived of an a-political chief executive.

Yet Hawley overstates the significance of the 12th Amendment to the extent he see it as the means by which the politicization of the presidency came about. Partisan political party spirit--something considered abhorrent in 1787--was already in place by the end of the first Washington administration. The 12th Amendment didn't so much make the president the national politician-in-chief as recognize what had become the case.

But Hawley is certainly correct that the 12th Amendment formalizes what needs to be the case, i.e., that the president must have political and not merely institutional control over the executive branch. Some (like me) would like to see the office of president focus more tightly on execution of the laws passed by Congress instead of the near-messianic overtones that color perceptions of the office today. That seems unlikely unless we can bring back George (Washington, not Bush).

For better or worse the president of the United States is the nation's leading political actor and has been formally so since ratification of the 12th Amendment.

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