Rethinking the Choosing of a VP Nominee

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.

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