Rethinking the Choosing of a VP Nominee

August 31, 2008

When asked what presents the greatest challenge to a statesman, Harold Macmillan  replied, “events, my boy, events.”  Given the developments over the past couple of weeks, I couldn’t help but recall Macmillan’s statement in the context of the two Vice Presidential nominees.

First, let’s get the unpleasant stuff out of the way so that we may move onto the merely convtroversial.  The Vice President is famously a heartbeat away from the Presidency.  Only two Presidents in the twentieth century (Harding and Roosevelt) died in office of natural causes, and none in the second half.  But Politico points out that given McCain’s age, an actuary would give him only a one in three chance of surviving two terms.

Perhaps Even more ominously,  there have been publicly documented attempts on the lives of two of our past four and three of our past eight (Kennedy, Reagan, Bush 41) Presidents.  Fortunately, only one of these attempts was successful, and only one was clearly originated by non-U.S. actors. 

The unfortunate truth is that–due to a combination of age, past ill health, and racisim– the nation is edgier than it has perhaps ever been about the longevity of the two candidates.  And given the steady thrum of activity from global terror networks, such anxiety seems unlikely to subside much in any Presidential election year on the horizon.

Given all this, I’ve been thinkinng a lot about the process we use for choosing VP nominees.  Presidential primaries were almost irrelevant before 1960, and before 1976, the vice presidential nominee was generally picked by party insiders on the last day of the convention.  Horse trading and ticket balancing were the orders of the day at least until Carter’s choice of Mondale, and there wasn’t much difference between the parties in this regard.  Even if the party bosses would have wanted the Veep-selection process to be more participatory, such a notion was impractical.  Certainly until the mid 70s, widespread familiarity with more than two or three high-profile party members was not supported by the communications modalities of the day.

Fast forward to today.  If you were in Denver or Minneapolis and ran smack into a party “boss,” you likely wouldn’t recognize him or her.  The selection of a Presidential nominee has become an 18-month process, during which the American people become more familiar with a large handful of candidates in each party than they were with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976.  Yet the choice of the VP nominee has devolved–inexorably and without service to any identifiable interest– to the complete and irrevocable choice of each party’s Presidential nominee.  Whereas the choosing of each party’s nominee has become super-inclusive (not to mention looooong), the selection of the VP nominee has gone steeply and rapidly in the other direction.  The identity of the one who is the famous “heartbeat away” is exclusive choice of the guy or gal in possession of the heartbeat.

So.  I realize how we got here.  But is this where we want to be?

A large and vocal minority of Democrats (including the one with whom I share a house) were bitterly disappointed by the fact that Hillary Clinton was not vetted–let alone selected–as Barack Obama’s nominee.  And their pique is understandable:  how was it that Joe Biden–a disgraced candidate of 20 years ago who got less than 1% of the 2008 primary vote– was chosen when the almost insisputably well-qualified winner of 18 million votes garnered no consideration?  

And then there’s Sarah Palin, the now-you-don’t-see-her, now-you-can’t-miss-her pick of John McCain.   Forget whether you think McCain’s move in choosing her was canny and inspired, or impetuous and suicidal.  Forget also whether you believe that her selection is justified by the fact that Obama is, in a historical context, also relatively young and experienced. 

Forget all that.  As small-d democrats, it still seems that a couple of uncomfortable truths should give us pause.  First, as Vandehei and Harris mused snarkily though not unfairly in Politico,

Most people know the staff at the local Starbucks better than McCain knows Palin. They met for the first time last February at a National Governors Association meeting in Washington. Then, they spoke again — by phone — on Sunday while she was at the Alaska state fair and he was at home in Arizona

 And second,  whereas Gov. Palin triumphed in  her biggest election by winning the votes of roughly 13% of the residents of a state about as populous as Austin, Barack Obama ran a 17-month referendum on his background, in which a clear but slim majority of 40 million voters gave him the nod.

Doesn’t the situation faced by both parties this year seem a little non-sensical?  The stock answer–that the Presidential nominee should have the latitude to pick the running mate who will best help him or her govern–is not a bad one in theory, it just doesn’t hold historical water in practice.  How easy it is to forget what an outlier Dick Cheney has been.   Other than him, it’s difficult to name a single VP in history whose unique synchornicity with the President’s talents and governing style was crucial to the way the administration was run (for good or for ill).  It’s often pointed out that both Mondale and Bush Sr. had significantly enlarged portfolios, but honesty–would anyone really argue that that history’s judgement of Carter (mainly ill) or Reagan (considerably better) is anthing more than footnoted by the unique contributions of the Vice Presidents?  Shouldn’t the voters have some say in who is first in line to lead our nation?

The reverse argument is much easier to make.  Whereas I  the eventual Presidential nominee does his party’s voters a disservice by dismissing the number two finisher out of hand, it would be a singularly bad idea to force him to pick his closest rival.   While I believe that the special circumstances posed by the Clintons would have constituted a corner case of governing difficulty, it’s impossible to predict what other cases of uniquely toxic chemistry might arise between opponents.

So I suggest a compromise.  At the beginning of the the primary season, a committee chosen by each composes a slate of roughly 20 names who would be suitable VP candidates.  They do it however they do it, but obviously with input from those seriously vying for the Presidential nomination.  When I vote in a my primary, in addition to making my choice for the nominee for President, I choose five VP names among whom I would be most comfortable allowing the eventual Presidential nominee choose.  At the end of the primaries, the presumptive nominee would then have a five-name list, chosen by the voters, from which to make a selection.  If the primary runner-up is not on the list, he or she could be added as a sixth.

The result is a good balance.  The Presidential nominee is neither painted into a corner, nor can he or she completely flout the will of the voters.

There are a couple of relatively small-bore benefits to such a proposal.  The first is that it would increase the level of interest of the voting public in the process, and would likely raise primary turnout.  The second is that the vetting process could start in earnest much earlier, with the press as active participants once the list for each party is established.

Of course, by far the most important benefit is that some measure of democracy is re-injected into the process of selecting the Vice President.  Remember, not since 1952 has the Presidential candidate of the incumbent party been neither the President nor the Vice President.  Once we acquire these folks, they tend to stick around with us for awhile.

And then, there’s always that heartbeat.


Alas and Alack

August 31, 2008

OK, after spending the day yesterday reading the reactions of brainy women to Palin’s anointement, today I’m lurking around the same posts Andrew Sullivan is reading.  This is far more familiar ground for him and he’s a helluva lot smarter, but we’re nonethless having the same “oh, shit, they really believe this stuff” revelation.  I was warned of this by my friend Eugene Sepulveda this morning.

Says Sullivan:

Non-movement conservatives may well have this reaction:

I’ve voted a straight Republican ticket every year of my life since 1975, when I first came of voting age, but I was stunned and horrified by McCain’s choice of Palin. I simply cannot even consider voting for McCain after this choice, which speaks loudly of his own selfishness and fundamental frivolousness.   

So I was shocked when I turned to the conservative blogs looking for others who shared my dismay and found a celebration going on. They really honestly believe that Palin’s “inexperience” and Obama’s “inexperience” are equivalent.  I have had no luck at all in the past 24 hours trying to explain that Obama is quite obviously an impressive man (with whom I disagree on almost every major issue) with extraordinary qualities of organization, discipline and leadership.  I see nothing in Palin’s record to suggest that she has any such qualities. 

He is a man who has spent his adult life thinking serious thoughts about serious issues and having serious conversations about them with other serious, well-informed people; while Palin quite as clearly has done none of those things.  He was the president of the Harvard Law Review; she was the point guard on her high school basketball team. 

He has surrounded himself in his campaign with world-class people (with whom, again, I disagree on almost every issue); and though I am doubtless an elitist and snob for saying so, I doubt that she has even met a half-dozen world-class people in her lifetime. 

While Obama might do a hundred things as President that I believe are bad for the country, I am confident that he would surround himself with experienced, informed, competent advisors and that he would make no world-destroying blunders.  I cannot say the same about Palin and, in view of what this choice reveals about McCain’s character and judgment, I cannot say the same of him either.

  The Palin pick says much more about McCain than it does about Palin (all it says about her is that she didn’t have the good sense to turn it down). What it says about McCain is that he is more interested in politics than policy, more interested in campaigning than governing, tactical when he should be strategic, and reckless when he should be considered.

He is as big a gamble as president as Palin is as vice-president. This decision was about gut, about politics, about cynicism, and about vanity. It’s Bushism metastasized.



Frank Rich in the NYT

August 31, 2008


I sometimes find Rich’s editorials s a little dull, but his work today has a particular sweep not often found in 900-word pieces in the msm.

Two bits stuck out particularly:

His campaign, unlike TV’s fantasists, knew the simple truth. The New York Times/CBS News poll conducted on the eve of the convention found that the Democrats were no more divided than the G.O.P: In both parties, 79 percent of voters supported their respective nominees. The simultaneous Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll also found that 79 percent of Democrats support Obama — which, as Amy Walter of National Journal alone noticed, is slightly higher than either John Kerry and Al Gore fared on that same question (77 percent) in that same poll just before their conventions.


But now that media are being transformed at a speed comparable to the ever-doubling power of microchips, cable’s ascendancy could also be as short-lived as, say, the reign of AOL. Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Forum, which monitors the intersection of politics and technology, points out that when networks judge their success by who got the biggest share of the television audience, “they are still counting horses while the world has moved on to counting locomotives.” The Web, in its infinite iterations, is eroding all 20th-century media.

The Internets: The Undoing of McCain/Palin?

August 31, 2008

Back in the Pleistocene–when the smart money was still on Romney or Pawlenty as McCain’s running mate–there was some low leve chatter about whether the fact that the presumptive R nominee couldn’t “get himself on-line” was an issue.  Although his technophobia didn’t win him any points, it didn’t build as an issue, either. 

But here’s a bold prediction:  the communication and discovery power of the internet will bring down Sarah Palin–and with her John McCain–before she ever gets going.

The resentment toward what is seen as McCain’s cynicism is everywhere today–everywhere except in organizations which both have web sites and take literally the Book of Revelations.  Call them feminist flash mobs–and they’re not happy.

Then there’s the salacious stuff.  I’ve already seen a picture of the governor which is obviously fairly recent and while far from pornographic, it will not go down well with her new uber-mensch  James Dobson.   There’s also plenty about the roving eye of her husband the Dude, and about the nastiness of her sister’s breakup with her state trooper husband.

Here’s my prediction:  the McCain team–starting with the candidate himself–didn’t really understand the risk they were taking because they didn’t understand the ubiquity and power of the web.  Most of this will turn out to be smoke–but there will be at least one fire in here. 

Think about the probabilities, relative to 1984 when Tip O’Neill strong-armed the Mondale camp into picking Ferraro.  The McCain squad had all Palin’s best stuff–her speeches, her poll numbers, her video clips.  Her team doubtless made the best case they could possibly make.  The chance that she would surprise on the upside with her performance in September and October was slim to none.

The downside is almost limitless, though.  As a below-the-radar figure, she will bring out the most ravenous instincts of a hungry press, which now employs 24-hour, highly tech-savvy and ridiculously inexpensive  discovery squads in developing countries to uncover something–anything to besmirch the nominee. 

And the worst part is that given how McCain minimizes the power and importance of technology, the gulf between what his vetting team has turned up and what the relentless swarm of professionals will discover over the next two months has a good chance of being really big.

The Right’s Rx to Ferraro in 1984

August 31, 2008

Joe Conason in Salon:

Back when the first woman was nominated by a major party to be vice president, conservatives didn’t react quite so positively as today. In August 1984, an editorial in the National Review mocked Democrats for choosing Geraldine Ferraro to run with former Vice President Walter Mondale. “The Democrats will attempt to project the issue as ‘whether a woman can be Vice President,’ a point the Republicans can cheerfully concede, returning to the question of whether this woman in particular should be the Vice-President … Mrs. Ferraro is manifestly an affirmative-action nominee. She has been in the House only since 1979 and cannot be said, on the record, to be as qualified to be President, if necessary, as, say John Glenn, Fritz Hollings, Mo Udall, or — George Bush.”

Palin’s View from the Pew

August 31, 2008

Along the lines of the endless loops of Jeremiah Wright’s inanities, Harper’s posts some of the more outre sermonology of Gov. Palin’s pastors.

If we ever thought that winning the approval of the end-of-days crowd required anything other than a church membership and anti-abortion bona fides,  the fact that someone Dobson has almost certainly never met is now his next Reagan makes it pretty clear:

Christian conservatives like Gary Bauer, Tony Perkins and James Dobson have hailed McCain’s selection of Palin. Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family, vowed earlier this year to never support McCain. However, within hours of Palin’s addition to the GOP ticket, he had changed his tune, saying, he had “not been so excited about a political candidate since Ronald Reagan.”

Say of the Day: John Schwenkler

August 30, 2008

This guy’s pretty funny.  With tongue firmly in cheek, explaining the Palin pick:

Got that? You’re John McCain, and that’s what you think. Now why in the world, in an election as close as this one, would you select anyone as your Vice Presidential candidate other than the person who gives you the best chance to win? And so why in the world would the decision to the person who does give you such a chance – or whom you at least take to give you such a chance – show that you had opted to “choose your campaign over your presidency”? You won’t HAVE a Presidency unless you can run a successful campaign, and up against the Obama juggernaut there’s no room to pull punches: if Palin gives you the best chance to win, and the cost of failure is civilizational collapse, then Palin it’s going to be.

I’m not insisting that Palin actually is that person, though I do think that Thoreau makes a pretty strong case. But what I do know is that the idea that McCain should have hitched himself to an electorally weak Vice Presidential candidate just so that he can end up – with the terrorists having prevailed and the world crumbling around him, mind you – telling himself that, HAD he won the thing, he’d have had a worthy successor … well, that’s a pretty silly idea. John McCain can’t put country first unless he starts doing better in the polls (emphasis mine).