A heartbeat away. We hear that expression a lot when it comes to the office of the vice president of the United States, especially now that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have chosen their ticket companions. Yet we rarely ponder what it really means in terms of democratic process.
So think about it: Hundreds of millions of people weigh in on who will become the next U.S. president through a painstakingly long election process. But for a vice president to become president, only two things really must happen: They must be chosen by the presidential nominee and, once that nominee is elected president, that person must stop being president before the term is finished. Sure, the vice presidential candidate’s name is on the ballot too, and sometimes that name can impact the ticket’s chances at the margins. But for all intents and purposes, the vice president is chosen by a single individual: his or her running mate. Isn’t there a more democratic way of choosing the person who is supposed to be the top-dog-in-waiting?
With the expansion of the vice president’s role and influence in recent decades, the person who holds that office has become more important than ever.
Politicians and political historians have long questioned the necessity of the office itself. Even Franklin Roosevelt’s first VP, John Nance Garner, famously said the position was “not worth a bucket of warm piss” (or “spit” — accounts vary). But presidents do die, and leave office for other reasons, and the prospect of a vice president becoming president is hardly academic. It has happened nine times in American history, and the transition does not always go well, or all that democratically. Take the last vice president to assume the presidency: Gerald Ford, who became president despite having never been elected to that office or the vice presidency (he replaced Richard Nixon’s first VP, Spiro Agnew, who resigned after a bribery scandal).
With the expansion of the vice president’s role and influence in recent decades, the person who holds that office has become more important than ever. And, unlike other cabinet officers, who serve at the pleasure of the president, the VP cannot be fired by the president. In sum, there is a great deal of risk today that an American vice president, despite that office’s growing influence and proximity to power, will be someone who would have a hard time getting elected president themselves (see: Mike Pence or Tim Kaine).
Is there a better way? I asked some experts on the vice presidency what they thought about the issue. “I think we all have a sense that there’s something of a democratic deficit in this process,” says Christopher Devine, a political scientist at the University of Dayton. “The running mate is basically selected for us.” But both Devine and his co-author of the new book The VP Advantage, Kyle Kopko of Elizabethtown College, caution that despite such apparent flaws, there’s no alternative that’s clearly better, or that we haven’t tried already.
Another alternative process that America has tried before: letting the party conventions select the vice presidential nominee.
For example, why not elect a vice president separately, the way many states elect their lieutenant governors? Well, for the first few presidential elections in our nation’s history we did, with the runner-up in the presidential election becoming vice president. It became clear, though, that having a president and a vice president of different parties was a recipe for dysfunction, especially today, as the vice president’s role in advancing the president’s agenda has expanded. “Recent history has demonstrated that personal and ideological compatibility between president and vice president,” says Saint Louis University law professor Joel K. Goldstein, “is critical for a smooth and productive working relationship.”
A similar risk of incompatibility would be involved in another alternative process that America has tried before: letting the party conventions select the vice presidential nominee. In the period prior to 1940 when party conventions played this role, says Devine, they “regularly made decisions based on patronage and electoral considerations rather than more responsible bases.”
Strike two. So, what about a third option — one that emulates Ted Cruz choosing Carly Fiorina as his running mate during the Republican primary? Why not force presidential candidates to name their running mates at the start of the primary process? This would ensure some compatibility and allow primary voters a more direct say in the running mate and prospective ticket as a whole. Of course, as Goldstein points out, even in years where you don’t have 16-plus contenders as we did in the GOP primary this election, you would quickly dilute the quality of the potential veeps. Besides, many of the best prospects would be current officeholders hesitant to declare their candidacies, or contenders for the presidency itself (as Biden and many other VP candidates have been).
So, like it or not, we are probably stuck with a vice presidential nomination process that, although democratically flawed, may be the best we can hope for given the nature of the office today. Ultimately, says Goldstein, the best way to further democratize the process of choosing a vice president is to engage actively in the same sort of “highly visible selection period” we currently have, in which a nominee’s record, debate performance and qualifications are scrutinized by the public and media.
It’s not perfect, but it’s not warm piss either.