June 19, 2008

The Curious Un-Democratic Secrecy of Vice-Presidential Selection.

After the American Century

One of the most curious practices in world politics is the selection of American vice-presidents. While literally millions of people choose the presidential candidates in the bright glare of constant scrutiny, a tiny handful of advisers and a candidate chooses each of the running mates. In a parliamentary system like that in Britain, Denmark or Germany, the "crown princes" in each party are observed for years in key cabinet positions, and constantly evaluated by the press. But in the American system the vice-president is chosen in secret from an unknown list of candidates, and may not be terribly well-known until after the announcement is made.

This procedure and the selection of possibly unknown candidates means that there can be unpleasant surprises after the formal announcement has been made. In 1972 George McGovern selected a well-educated and promising younger Senator - Eagleton was his name - to run with him. But his staff had not vetted their choice thoroughly enough, and it came out that Eagleton had undergone electric shock treatment some years before. You can decide for yourself whether or not this disqualifies someone to be next in line for the presidency, but Nixon's reelection campaign had a field day with it. McGovern was also the victim of Watergate, which is another story, but after he had to "un-choose" Eagleton his campaign never really recovered. Walter Mondale also sank his chances against Reagan in 1984, when he chose Ms. Ferrarro, without noticing that her husband had some dubious business connections in New York. The idea of choosing a woman was perhaps a good one, but that uproar was pretty much the undoing of his campaign.

McCain and Obama are now making the most crucial decision they have yet had to deal with, and it is one which they make alone, in secret. Voters regard this as a test of their judgement, and a clue to their core values. Has the person chosen really got the qualities needed to be president, if need be? Or has the person been selected mostly to "balance" the ticket? Or, occasionally, is the selection proof that the candidate just lacks judgement? Dan Quayle comes to mind. Was that mentally challenged, vapid, individual really just a heartbeat away from the presidency? The spectacle of seeing him blunder around from 1988 to 1992 certainly did not improve George Bush Sr.'s credibility. Quayle once apologized during a Latin America n trip because he did not speak Latin.

If the president remains healthy, the vice-president remains a minor figure. But the four (or eight) years waiting in the wings make these secret selections into leading contenders for the presidency in later elections. Since World War II, the following vice-presidents, all initially singled out by a handful of people, eventually became president: Truman, Nixon, Johnson, Ford, and Bush Sr. That is one half of the total. The others who emerged chiefly through the electoral process were Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush Jr. Admittedly, Bush Jr. is a disaster, but he did not win the popular vote, either. So leave him out, and what anyone can see is that the former vice-presidents were clearly less popular than those who were first vetted by the press and public. In short, I trust an open democratic process to choose leaders more than a few experts meeting in secret.

It is, in theory, easy to change the selection system, for nothing in the Constitution dictates the present arrangements. Only custom says that Hillary Clinton cannot run an active campaign for the second spot. Indeed, why should not anyone interested in the job be required to declare themselves a candidate, so the public can at least discuss them? The current system is mere bad habit. Some might argue that it is prudent to defer to the nominees and their need to find someone they feel is compatible. But it seems like a curious - and serious - failure of democratic principles. If the US ever decides to write a Constitutional amendment that gets rid of the strange Electoral College system - which led to the unfair selection of George W. Bush instead of Al Gore - at the same time it would be a good idea to require that the selection of vice-presidents be more open. In the meantime, there is nothing that says that either of the two parties will abandon this vestige of pre-democratic times.