September 29, 2014

I’ve been thinking of vice presidential selection lately for two reasons.

 First, watching Ken Burns’ The Roosevelt’s reminded me of how little thought FDR gave to his vice presidents, even as the war raged on, the atomic bomb was under development, and his health declined.  

Despite all of that, he never took his Vice Presidents into his confidence or even deigned to prepare Harry Truman for what he would encounter as President.  The Truman experience would lead to significant changes in the role of Vice Presidents, though they wouldn’t be realized until the Carter-Mondale years.

Second, Sarah Palin’s recent address to the Values Voter Summit offered a timely reminder that she was almost vice president due to John’s McCain’s temperament.  Palin’s fitness to be second in line to the presidency was just a non factor for McCain and her choice remains one of the most reckless by a presidential candidate in living memory.

But it has not lead to any discernible effort to change the method of vice presidential selection.

The larger question her candidacy begs is why an advanced democracy allows the choice of a vice president to be made in secret without offering any attempt to secure democratic legitimacy?

The Palin fiasco wasn’t the first in the modern era.  The lack of serious vetting or appropriate process afflicted candidates such as William Miller in 1964, Thomas Eagleton in 1972, Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and Dan Quayle in 1988.  Spiro Agnew in 1968 probably leads the pack in terms of lack of proper vetting and the danger to the nation the Agnew vice presidency posed. 

Presidential candidates win by putting together a coalition of support across the country in primaries and caucuses and, in the process; party leaders, opponents, the press, and ordinary party members investigate them from coast to coast.  Yet the choice of a vice presidential candidate rests with the candidate alone.  Parties have virtually no say and have never rejected a nominee’s choice in the modern era of presidential elections.  

The electoral rules that apply to prospective presidential candidates simply do not apply to the VP candidate.  And unlike every other senior leader in the executive branch, there is no vetting after the “appointment” by the Senate through its power to advise and consent.  This important constitutional function required the current Secretary of the Interior to receive greater vetting and scrutiny than Sarah Palin received in 2008.

Early in the 2012 cycle, Ed Rogers in the Washington Post made a good case for putting a presidential/vice-presidential team together before the primaries begin.  The suggestion never received serious consideration.  And that’s too bad. 

Massachusetts has been doing this for decades, at least on the Republican side.

Bill Weld started the tradition when he was a long shot candidate for the GOP nomination.  In September of 1989, State Senator Paul Cellucci announced that he was running as Weld’s ticket mate before the 1990 pre primary convention.  Weld eventually beat Steven Pierce in the post Convention primary and Cellucci beat back a challenge from Peter Torkildsen.  

Every GOP ticket since has followed Weld’s lead.

The Democrats here have been resistant to steal a page from the GOP playbook and prefer to choose a ticket on their own without assistance from the gubernatorial candidates.

Either way, the seconds in command in Massachusetts have to run the democratic gauntlet from caucus to convention to primary. They are not sprung on us after the top of the ticket is chosen.  Whether part of a pre primary team or not, they have to win the nomination, not have it bestowed upon them.

The process the two main national parties employ for choosing their seconds in command pales in comparison. 

Michael Leahy in the Washington Post made a powerful caser for reviewing this process, writing that “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.”

That was in 2011 and still no urgency to change the process. 

Massachusetts could lead the way on this issue with its very good model of choosing party tickets.  

vice presidency, Massachusetts Republican Party, Sarah Palin, lieutenant governor

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