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.
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.
It is the national interest that most strongly argues for rethinking the veep nomination process. As the vice presidencies of Al Gore and Cheney keenly demonstrated, America’s No. 2 is more powerful than ever, with an independent power base and agenda. We’re past the point where we can be complacent with a selection process as lax as it is monarchical, a system dangerously vulnerable to saddling us with the unwanted or the unqualified.