The peculiar case of the American vice-presidency|
Among the oddities of the US system of government is the vice president. The position was created by the Constitution, but the founding fathers neglected to give him anything to do. His only constitutional role is to preside over the US Senate and break ties; he can’t even speak except to deliver vote totals and make the occasional parliamentary ruling; and the vast majority of the time his function is fulfilled by random members of the majority party who serve as president pro tempore of the Senate.
Of course, the vice president becomes president in the event that the president should die in office or resign. Of the 43 men who have served as president, nine achieved the office this way. Additionally, the vice presidency is often a stepping stone to the presidency, with five vice presidents later being elected president in their own right. George H.W. Bush is the most recent to do so.
Therefore, a third of American presidents became president directly or indirectly through the vice presidency. It is a decision to which great thought should be given.
Unfortunately, this is often not the case. The vice president is often chosen to satisfy some political need within a party. For example, Ronald Reagan thought he needed Mr Bush to balance his ticket and soften his image as a hardline conservative.
Ideally, presidential nominees would like to find a vice president who can deliver a big state that he would not otherwise carry. The classic example is John F. Kennedy’s choice of Lyndon Johnson in 1960. He undoubtedly carried the state of Texas for him and helped throughout the South.
Since it is rare for there to be a potential vice president who can carry a key state, presidential nominees often look for vice presidents who appeal to certain interest groups. Mr Bush chose Dan Quayle in large part because he thought his youth would appeal to younger Americans.
The key constraint in terms of using the vice president for purely political purposes is that he or she really does have to be capable of becoming president. Nominating someone who is manifestly unqualified can drag a candidate down to defeat.
It is widely believed that John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as vice president in 2008 doomed him to defeat, as it became clear during the campaign that she had neither the minimum knowledge nor temperament to be president.
Consequently, much of the discussion about who Mitt Romney should name has centered on those considered safe choices—people clearly qualified to be president who won’t pull the ticket down.
Current speculation has centered on 5 men: Ohio Senator Rob Portman, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and South Dakota Senator John Thune. Last week there was also some speculation about former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Mr Rubio and Mr Jindal clearly are long shots because of their youth and relative inexperience. Some Republicans believe Rubio, who is of Cuban heritage, would help with the fast-growing Hispanic vote, although there is no evidence of this in polls. Mr Jindal, whose parents were born in India, would showcase the party’s inclusiveness.
Political professionals, however, think Mr Romney will probably pick one of the “boring old white men”: Mr Portman, Mr Pawlenty or Mr Thune. Each is qualified to be president and would be unlikely to cause controversy. But none would measurably strengthen the ticket except possibly Mr Portman, who may help Romney carry a state, Ohio, he needs to win.
Some scholars have long been troubled by the common practice of allowing a party’s presidential nomination to have the sole say-so in naming his running mate. Although the party’s convention nominally names the vice president, in practice it merely rubber-stamps the presidential nominee’s choice.
I think it would be a good idea to give parties a bigger role in choosing the vice president. Perhaps nominees could provide the party convention with a slate of acceptable choices and let them sell themselves to party delegates. At least it would add some excitement to an event that is otherwise almost entirely devoid of substance in an era when presidential nominees are chosen by state primaries long in advance of party conventions.