“If you could take Herman Cain and mate him up with Newt Gingrich, I think you would have a couple of really interesting guys to work with,” deadpanned Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Both Cain and Gingrich dismissed the query — the last one in the two-hour debate — as a mere “game.”
Far from it. Rather, it’s one of the most consequential questions a presidential contender can entertain. For all the debates and primaries we hold while selecting a presidential nominee, it is remarkable how comparatively little time is devoted to vetting the bottom of the ticket. Yet eight sitting vice presidents have risen to the Oval Office after the deaths of presidents, and a ninth did so after Richard Nixon’s resignation. And since 1945, eight vice presidents have gone on to become their party’s nominee for president. A vice president is essentially a president-in-waiting, but Americans use greater scrutiny in selecting federal judges and Cabinet department undersecretaries — all subject to rigorous confirmation processes — than in picking a veep.
Instead, we engage in an odd ritual, a sort of Soviet Party Congress meets the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes: A presidential nominee alone makes the selection, assisted by a few advisers and subject to the festive rubber-stamping of ardent supporters. The gratitude of a newly handpicked veep candidate resembles that of a starry-eyed lottery winner — the selection cloaked in mystery, good fortune and a touch of randomness. The announcement, on the eve of the convention, neatly precludes prolonged deliberation.
There must be a better way.
Americans are ill-served by this closed-door, autocratic custom — arguably the most anti-democratic aberration in an otherwise sound electoral system. Given the clout of the modern vice president, and with the 2012 Republican National Convention still more than 10 months away, perhaps now is the time to reexamine how America’s major parties choose a vice presidential nominee, that No. 2 who is always but a tragedy away from being the One.
No drumbeat has accompanied a vice presidential nominee’s selection for several generations now. The groundswell for Dick Cheney began and ended with George W. Bush. The recent tape-recorded disclosures from Jacqueline Kennedy about her assassinated husband’s scorn for Lyndon Johnson have renewed old questions about why JFK selected LBJ as his running mate in the first place. Naturally, the answer had its roots in political expediency — and a rushed decision. John Kennedy’s need to safeguard Southern votes made the Texan Johnson useful, a view the Kennedy forces pressed in veiled fashion on disgruntled supporters. In the end, the acquiescence of the delegates reflected no real enthusiasm for Johnson, merely their fealty to the presidential nominee. Three years later, Johnson was president, his ascension owed to an assassin’s bullets and to one man’s hurried choice.