How McCain and Obama Should Choose Their Vice Presidents

Some argue our system for choosing a vice president is bad, but at least now multiple people are involved in the decision.

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Was Hillary Clinton trying to muscle her way into the vice presidential nomination? That was the widely held assumption when she made her nonconcession speech on the night of the South Dakota and Montana primaries. Last month, longtime Democratic consultant Bob Beckel argued that Clinton could force her way onto the ticket by holding her own delegates and appealing to superdelegates who had endorsed Obama (or endorsed neither candidate) and who owed the Clintons. It seemed unrealistic to me, but it was a tantalizing suggestion, and Clinton's statement earlier that day on a conference call that she would consider accepting the No. 2 slot seemed consistent with Beckel's scenario.

My own view is that Clinton hadn't decided what to do. "I will be making no decisions tonight," as she said, and I think she simply was too shellshocked to do anything but leave her options open. As longtime Democratic leader (he's managed the last several Democratic national conventions) Michael Berman was quoted by Jackie Calmes in the Wall Street Journal, "Major candidates for president are by definition great dreamers. When their dreams are quashed they should be given the courtesy of a little time to internalize their loss."

But Obama gave her only a little time—less than 24 hours, as indicated in the lead of Calmes's story:

Supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton suggested she would like to be Sen. Barack Obama's running mate, but close advisers to Sen ator Obama are signaling that an Obama-Clinton ticket is highly unlikely.

Some in the Clinton camp also noted a possible deal-breaker for a party-unity ticket: Bill Clinton may balk at releasing records of his business dealings and big donors to his presidential library.

Senator Clinton scheduled a gathering for her staff at her house Saturday, where she will en d her campaign and concede the nomination, three advisers said.

Plainly Obama didn't want her on the ticket. And he took command by muscling Bill Clinton. Other Democrats insisted that Clinton end her campaign and endorse Obama. According to Fox News's Major Garrett, that point was made insistently in a conference call with House members by Reps. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Charles Rangel of New York, and Norman Dicks of Washington—all Clinton supporters to that point.

In pushing Clinton to withdraw and quashing any effort to force her on the ticket, these Democrats were upholding one of the traditional rules of American politics, one which no one questions, except me. That rule is that the choice of the vice presidential nominee is the sole prerogative of the presidential nominee. This rule is usually invoked in the same hushed tones in which it is noted that the president is commander in chief or that the candidate with a majority of electoral votes becomes president.

Yet it seems to me an anomaly. Some 36 million Americans took part in selecting the Democratic nominee for president. And yet only one person chooses the nominee for vice president, who may turn out to be (as John Tyler was) president for three years and 11 months.

Defenders of the rule may reasonably ask, How else can it be done? Theoretically, you could throw the choice of vice president to the party's national convention, as Adlai Stevenson did in 1956. That resulted in a fascinating floor fight between John F. Kennedy, Albert Gore Sr., and (the ultimate winner) Estes Kefauver. But ever since 1972, the presidential nominee has been in absolute control of a majority of votes at both parties' conventions. Delegates expect direction and will seek it out if it is not given. You can't very well have a second round of primaries and caucuses to choose the vice presidential nominee. And the idea of casting one vote for president and another for vice president in our current primaries and caucuses is also a nonstarter. We once chose the president and vice president that way, but scrapped it by constitutional amendment after the tumultuous election of 1800, most recently described in Edward Larson's vivid A Magnificent Catastrophe.

Nonetheless, I do have to admit that the process for selecting vice presidents has been improved, and by the man who also did more than anyone else to make the vice presidency a useful office in the conduct of government, Walter Mondale. Before Mondale was nominated by the Democratic Party in 1984, vice presidents were usually picked at the last minute at parties' national conventions. In 1976 Bob Dole was selected by Gerald Ford in the wee hours of the morning, and Mondale was selected by Jimmy Carter during convention week. In 1980 Ronald Reagan picked George H. W. Bush only after some hours of negotiation by Gerald Ford for a "co-presidency."

Mondale wanted to do it differently. When he was vice president, Jimmy Carter had delegated important government responsibilities to him, had given him an office in the West Wing (and offices there for his top staffers) and had had regularly scheduled meetings with him. This was a considerable change from previous practice, for which Carter deserves credit. In the three months Harry Truman was vice president, he meet with President Franklin Roosevelt exactly once; when he was summoned to the White House on April 12, 1945, he did not know whether Roosevelt was in Washington. Richard Nixon was never invited to the president's private quarters in the eight years he was vice president. Lyndon Johnson was treated more respectfully by John Kennedy, but not by some Kennedy staffers. Hubert Humphrey was repeatedly humiliated by Johnson. Spiro Agnew was assigned a role as speechgiver by Richard Nixon, and nothing else.

Mondale, drawing on his experience, wanted to follow the example Carter set. This was complicated by the pressure he was under to seek a female nominee at a time when the Democrats (and Republicans) had few female officeholders with plausible credentials. So he had his staff (including Michael Berman and Jim Johnson, on whom more anon) spend some time vetting possible nominees, and ended up choosing Rep. Geraldine Ferraro over then San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein. (I was at a dinner party the night Feinstein learned she was not the choice; she kept a stiff upper lip.) This may not have been the best choice, but in my view Ferraro performed credibly, and more so than one might have expected from her thin resume—three terms in the House, a job handling domestic cases in the Queens County district attorney's office.

In the meantime, Reagan was giving the first President Bush significant responsibilities as vice president. In 1988 Bush as Republican nominee and Michael Dukakis as the Democratic nominee spent time interviewing and examining the credentials of candidates and came up with Dan Quayle, who I believe performed competently in office, and Lloyd Bentsen, who I believe would have done so if he had been elected. In 1992 Bill Clinton spent considerable time before choosing Al Gore, who had significant accomplishments as vice president. Ditto with George W. Bush in 2000 and with Al Gore with Joseph Lieberman. In 2004 John Kerry asked former Mondale aide (and Fannie Mae CEO) Jim Johnson to supervise his selection process, and decided on John Edwards—a choice that his speechwriter Bob Shrum says he came to regret.

So what we have is a deliberative process in which, if one person still makes the decision, at least others are involved and they all have a considerable period of time in which to make the decision. The vice presidency has become a useful office and its occupant is determined in a less haphazard way than has been the case in most of the 19th and 20th centuries. For which thanks are due first to Walter Mondale and to Jimmy Carter, and secondarily to their successors in both parties who have followed their examples. Now let's see how Barack Obama and John McCain do.