Barack Obama and John McCain are preparing to engage in one of the uglier perversions of America’s democratic promise. With the breathless encouragement of media and political elites, the men who would be President are about to choose running mates who, after perfunctory ratification by the Democratic and Republican conventions, could well define the character of the two parties, the politics of the country and the presidency for many years. For all the high-minded talk about selecting the best and brightest, the VP nominees will be chosen with the same purpose Barry Goldwater acknowledged in 1964: “to get more votes.” While the next Vice President is to be selected by an individual, and nominated and elected as an afterthought, he or she will become what Gouverneur Morris, one of the wisest of our framers, feared: an American variant of the royal heir apparent.
Of forty-three Presidents so far, nine were Vice Presidents who assumed the position when the chief executive either died or quit. Four sitting Vice Presidents were elected to the top job, as was a former Vice President. And in the past fifty years, nine of twelve national elections have featured at least one presidential nominee who was previously nominated for Vice President.
Almost as consequential is the evolution of the office. Gone are the days when, as Harry Truman said, the Veep’s job was to “go to weddings and funerals.” Dick Cheney was minding the store while George W. Bush read children’s books on September 11, 2001. And Cheney’s prince regent presidency is merely an extreme variation on an expanding position; don’t forget that Al Gore “reinvented government.” Is it wise to cede the authority to pick perhaps the next party nominee, and perhaps the next President, to a candidate who seeks merely–or even primarily–to “get more votes,” especially in light of less-than-stellar recent selections like Dan Quayle, Joe Lieberman and Cheney?
As parties have lost much of their meaning and campaigns have increasingly become personality contests, the political and media classes have accepted the notion that presidential nominees should have full freedom to name running mates. It wasn’t always so. Three decades ago both parties, troubled by Spiro Agnew’s failed vice presidency, considered altering the selection process to make it more responsible and democratic. Jimmy Carter proposed in 1976 that, after nominating the presidential candidate, conventions recess for thirty days before nominating VPs. That same year the GOP came close to establishing a date by which candidates had to announce running mates. Some suggested that presidential and vice presidential contenders run as tickets in the primaries, and even that a separate system of VP primaries be established. GOP Senator Jacob Javits proposed electing the President and Vice President separately, a plan more recently embraced by constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and other reformers suggested eliminating the vice presidency altogether; under Schlesinger’s plan, the Secretary of State might temporarily fill an executive vacancy until the political parties nominated candidates for a Congressionally supervised election of the new President.
That much democracy would shock the system, as would any move by Obama or McCain to surrender the power to name his running mate. Nothing will change this year, but both parties have the authority, at this summer’s conventions, to establish commissions to propose reforms of the VP selection process. Doing so would signal a concern not just for winning votes but for making reform more than just a slogan.