04 August 2008

New Rules for the "Veepstakes?"

In the newest number of The Nation, John Nichols recommends a democratization of the process of selecting vice-presidential candidates of the major parties. He seems to think this necessary given the "evolution of the office" during the tenures of Al Gore and Dick Cheney, asking, "Is it wise to cede the authority to pick perhaps the next party nominee, and perhaps the next President, to a candidate who seeks merely -- or even primarily -- to get more votes [?]"

In other words, selecting vice-presidential candidates should be democratized because the office has become more powerful. This strikes me as a capitulation to a reality that ought to be contested. Nichols may not want to challenge the ascendancy of an "imperial vice-presidency" because he wishes such power in the hands of a Gore as much as he fears it in the hands of a Cheney. If he doesn't care for the traditional powerless veep whose purpose, according to Harry Truman, was to "go to weddings and funerals," the answer shouldn't be to give the veep more power, nor to legitimize that increased power by making the veep's selection more democratic. That's the same route to the "imperial presidency," which is usually justified on the ground that the President is the representative of the entire people.

Nichols notes that there's been talk of reforming the veep-selection process for over thirty years, including a proposal to elect the president and vice-president on separate lines. Rather than reform the process, why don't we go back to the roots and really shake up the system by re-establishing the rule that the runner-up in the presidential election automatically becomes the Vice President. We only abandoned that rule when party politics began to intrude upon elections, and when the Jeffersonian "Republican" party screwed up its plan to sweep the top two offices in 1800 and found Jefferson tied with his running-mate, Aaron Burr. After that fiasco, a constitutional amendment effectively enshrined party politics into presidential elections by requiring members of the Electoral College to split their two votes between a presidential and a vice-presidential candidate, leading to the formation of party tickets designed to exclude the rival presidential candidate from his once-rightful place in government.

Imagine the spectacle if the runner-up in this year's presidential election became president of the senate, with the power to break tie votes in a body still very closely divided between the major parties. To the extent that it would give an opposition party an additional check upon the majority party, I imagine the Founders would approve. At the same time, the new veep probably wouldn't be stuck attending all those weddings and funerals, either.

In any event, Nichols's suggestion is probably the last thing either Senator McCain or Senator Obama wants to see now. Each is being pressured to choose a running mate he most likely doesn't like. McCain's case may prove the worse one, since in light of reports of pressure on him to choose Mitt Romney, evangelicals have made it known that Romney is unacceptable to them. By comparison, Obama's dilemma is simply to say yes or no to Senator Clinton, and risk the consequences. Of course, either man could happily accept whomever pressure groups ask for if he could get away with relegating the running mate to the oblivion that used to be customary for Vice Presidents. The power is still the President's to give. But to the extent that the genie is out of the bottle, the likes of Romney and Clinton can make their acceptance of second-place conditional on promises of power, especially if their presence on either ticket is considered essential for victory. The best case for some kind of democratization, or for the more radical option of eliminating the office entirely, is to prevent this sort of bargaining for power from taking place away from public scrutiny. But if we could do away with the American Bipolarchy and return to the Founders' design, none of this would really be necessary.

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