Today’s major-party presidential nominee has a broad, discretionary power: the ability to choose his or her own vice-president. This choice has several very significant ramifications. Indeed, it is often characterized as the first presidential-level decision that a candidate has to make, and can be seen by pundits and opinion-makers as an early gauge of a candidate’s judgment and process of thought. It involves choosing one’s own immediate successor if death, severe illness, or resignation takes place. But it also implies choosing a significant all-purpose adviser and wingman, and can carry over a key demographic or a crucial swing state.
Such has been the case since 1940, when Franklin Roosevelt insisted on his Secretary of Agriculture, the progressive Henry A. Wallace, as his running-mate, even making the choice a condition of his re-election. What makes this choice curious is how it is singly invested in the nominee himself. The vice president runs in no primaries. He or she is not ratified by Congress (unless a new vice president is required under the provisions in the 25th amendment.) The potential veep is given a vote by a nominating convention, but there is no record in the modern era of a candidate’s choice being rejected by the delegates. (Arguably, however, candidates have avoided making selections that delegates might challenge. John McCain might very well have chosen Democrat-cum-Independent Joe Lieberman had not the prospect of the delegates’ rejection not hovered over his head.)
This begs the question: given that the president has personal discretion in choosing almost any suitable candidate he can think of, why have so many recent choices been bad, even with the thorough vetting that has come to accompany vice presidential selection? Just think, in the last 70 years, vice presidents chosen included:
- Richard Nixon (Republicans, 1952 and 1956): Ethically suspect half a generation before Watergate, Nixon had to contend with accusations of slush funds, excess red-baiting, and a reputation as “Tricky Dick.” And he was STILL picked.
- William E. Miller (Republicans, 1964): Goldwater’s choice for running-mate, Miller was an obscure Niagara County, New York congressman with a history of alcoholism picked solely because he got on Lyndon Johnson’s nerves.
- Thomas Eagleton (Democrats, 1972): Hasty and sloppy vetting produces a man with a history of mental illness, alcoholism, and electroshock therapy. Vice presidential vetting increases exponentially after McGovern chooses him, defends him “1000%”, then strongarms him into leaving the ticket.
- Geraldine Ferraro (Democrats, 1984): Eager to change the game by selecting the first woman on a national ticket, Mondale picked Ferraro, who had a scant 6 years as a congressman, had a husband involved in shady financial dealings, and was not a cooperative team player on the campaign trail.
- J. Danforth Quayle (Republicans, 1988): Both inarticulate and not particularly good at his job, Quayle spent 4 years making embarrassing newsbites (“My fellow astronauts…”). The closest America has come to reproducing the British archetype of the twit, Quayle forfeited the Republican Party’s pretensions to populism for the better part of a decade.
- Joseph Lieberman (Democrats, 2000): Loyalty is the single necessary quality for any vice-president. Subsequent events showed that Joe Lieberman did not have this in great quantities.
- John Edwards (Democrats, 2004): Elbowed into picking a candidate who could help in Appalachia and the South, John Kerry selects a man who would later be willing to cheat on his wife while she was dying with breast cancer.
- Sarah Palin (Republicans, 2008)
Given that a nominee-presumptive has his pick from hundreds of congressmen, dozens of senators and governors, former cabinet officials, generals, business and labor leaders, etc., why have so many piss-poor choices seen the light of day?
In terms of the technical mechanics of how vice-presidents are ratified, this is not very much different from what took place prior to 1940. In both cases, the assembled convention delegates vote by various means until a majority is reached. Few lobbied for it, and many worthy candidates turned the office down. (“I do not intend to be buried until I am dead,” Daniel Webster once scoffed when he was offered the Whig Party’s vice-presidential nomination.) Accordingly, this system chose a number of second-rate men to fill the office of the vice-presidency. This system is partly responsible for:
- Andrew Johnson (Republicans/Union ticket, 1864): Jettisoning the capable Hannibal Hamlin, the party taps Andrew Johnson, a states-rights congressman and military governor from Tennessee, despite a penchant for the bottle and his opposition to most planks of the Republican Party aside from keeping the nation together.
- Chester Arthur (Republicans, 1880): A disgraced Collector of the Port of New York City, Arthur was known chiefly for his cronyism and his holding of a political position that was synonymous with graft and extortion.
- Arthur Sewall (Democrats, 1896): Eager to balance out the full-throated populist William Jennings Bryan, delegates chose Arthur Sewall, a Maine shipping magnate who had never held elected office.
- Henry G. Davis (Democrats, 1904): A random businessman chosen from a random state (West Virginia), Davis was 80 years old at the time of his nomination, far and away the oldest man to be on a national ticket.
- Charles Bryan (Democrats, 1924): After taking over one hundred ballots to pick their presidential nominee, the party punts, choosing William Jennings Bryan’s little brother. He wore a skullcap, believing sunlight to be harmful.
- Frank Knox (Republican, 1936): Random newspaper editor.
So, clearly, having the convention choose isn’t necessarily better. One thing has improved, though– more and better candidates are willing to seek out the vice-presidency– it attracts ambition, rather than repelling it. Much of this is due the shift in the role and power of the vice-presidency. The 19th century and early 20th century, vice president was a cipher, doing little more than drawing breath, inquiring about the president’s health, and casting the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. Since the 1950s, a number of vice-presidents have been allowed key roles in their administration by the president. Eisenhower used Nixon as a kind of roving ambassador for free enterprise, Spiro Agnew was employed as an attack dog against sundry liberals, counter-culturalists, and elitists, Walter Mondale improved Carter’s lackluster relations with Congress, and Al Gore served as environment and foreign policy point man for Bill Clinton. Since then, the office has expanded even more fully: the “imperial vice-presidency” of Dick Cheney, where the veep played a significant role in policy-making and gatekeeping, to the intense congressional negotiations Joe Biden has performed on the behalf of President Obama. In other words, there is power in the vice-presidency, it is no longer an office where careers go to die. As Nixon, Gore, Bush 41, Humphrey, and Mondale discovered, it is the gateway to a presidential nomination in one’s own right if one is young enough and serves competently (the latter disqualifying the exception that proves the rule, Mr. Quayle.)
That solves half the problem– many, though surely not all, politicians would like to be vice-president, as the job offers its own rewards and power, while also providing a plausible pathway to the presidency. Is there a way, though, to pick good vice-presidents without relying on convention groupthink, or the decision-making capability of one man? Some suggestions have been proffered:
- Have vice-presidential primaries. Why not just have those who want the presidency seek it for themselves? This essentially performs the vetting process automatically. With news media, investigators, The National Enquirer, and Drudge Report guys following around potential vice-presidencies, any potential scandals, weaknesses, or lack of campaigning vigor will come to light sooner, rather than later. If Sarah Palin had to wade through a vice-presidential primary system, her daughter’s pregnancy, her husband’s secession-fever, and her own birthbath-deep grasp of public policy would have made short work of her. Similarly, the unsettling past mental illness of Thomas Eagleton would have come to the surface before he was put on a presidential ticket. And the weaknesses of Quayle, Ferraro, etc. would have all come to light, and probably crippled their chance for national office. But how exactly would candidates make the argument that they are fit for the nation’s second-highest office? It suggests calculation and a strange sort of self-aware inadequacy. And do we really want more primary elections and more election coverage? I think not.
- Award the vice-presidency to the runner-up from primary season– Why not just give the number 2 spot to the number 2 candidate? Plausible, but this would have created some very awkward tickets. Some would have been at ideological odds with each other and might have created personal animus: consider a Goldwater-Rockefeller, Obama-Clinton, Ford-Reagan, and Humphrey-McCarthy ticket, and the opportunities for backbiting and cross-messaging become immediately apparent. (Humphrey-McCarthy would have also been constitutionally dubious, comprising two Minnesota candidates.) On the other hand, some tickets (Reagan-Bush, Kerry-Edwards) would have remained the same. And some tickets might have been strengthened: Bush-McCain, McGovern-Muskie, Mondale-Hart, and Nixon-Rockefeller or Nixon- (George) Romney would all have been substantively improved.
I am not, in the end, convinced by either option. No, for better or worse, the president and the vice-president now comprise a team of some sort or other. In this light, keeping it the president’s decision— based on his sense of the candidate’s skill, electoral value, and function as a team player– remains the best choice in a swath of bad choices. Consider all the other structural problems besetting America’s means of presidential selection: electoral college, a bad primary system that gives enormous power to small, rural, disproportionally white states like Iowa and New Hampshire, gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement in Maine and Wisconsin and Florida. With all these problems, reforming the means of choosing the vice-president ought to be the last of our priorities, rendering this entire exercise in thought moot. At the moment, the only solutions seem 1. More thorough and consistent vetting of candidates, and 2. a higher (and perhaps unrealistic and myopic) sense of duty, compelling one to choose political skill and experience over appealing to one’s base or winning a swing constituency, or using the candidate in some way or other as a means to win an election, rather than a tool to help one govern.