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By Jay Cost

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On The Irrationality of the Veep Selection Process

Michael Barone made an interesting observation on his blog last Friday that I wanted to note (and, of course, toss in my two cents).

He writes:

Gerard Baker in the Times of London makes a point that I have made myself on occasion: The way we pick vice presidents is crazy. We spend lots of time and money and psychic energy on picking our presidents, with millions of people in one way or the other involved. But we let one man (or, quite possibly this time, one woman) select the vice presidential nominee. And this is considered by just about everyone as the way it should be. Yet, as Baker points out, vice presidents have a tremendous advantage when it comes to running for president. So the decision of Ronald Reagan at something like 3 in the morning in a Detroit hotel room to pick George H.W. Bush as his running mate leads directly to Bush's election as president in 1988 and his son's election as president in 2000 and 2004. Had Reagan picked someone else, it is extremely unlikely that either Bush would have been president.

This is a great point.

Why might this be the case? I can't help but think that it is due to the fact that we really do not have a maximally efficient scheme for electing vice presidents. Simply stated - the scheme is an 19th century scheme, but the office is now a 21st century office.

The 12th amendment governs the election of presidents and vice presidents. It was enacted to avoid a repetition of the election of 1800. Originally, the Constitution required electors to vote for two persons for president. The person with the greatest number of votes would become president. The person with the second greatest would be vice president. In the election of 1800, Aaron Burr - who was Thomas Jefferson's vice presidential candidate - received as many votes as Jefferson. It was up to the lame duck (and Federalist controlled) House of Representatives to settle the contest. With the institution of the 12th Amendment, electors came to cast one vote for president and one vote for vice president.

One can appreciate the intention of the original design, even though it was obviously flawed from the get-go. The candidate with the second most electoral votes would be the nation's second choice, and it stands to reason that - should the nation's first choice no longer be able to serve - the second choice should be there to fill in. However, this scheme never fulfilled this intention. In the first presidential election, in 1788, some electors voted for somebody other than John Adams so that he would not get as many votes as George Washington. So, having the unanimously preferred person become president required some strategic maneuvering on the part of the electors - already a bad sign!

By the time of the first contested presidential election - in 1796 - political parties had begun to emerge. And parties, of course, offer slates of candidates. This is what made 1800 so problematic. Republican electors voted for Jefferson and Burr. The latter, who was not even running for the office, nevertheless received as many votes as the top-of-the-ticket candidate. And the election had to be decided by Congress.

The 12th Amendment solved this problem by effectively making the vice presidency an unelected position. Electors still vote for vice president, and in theory they could vote for whomever they prefer. But in practice, the 12th Amendment has meant that whichever party wins the presidency also wins the vice presidency. So, it is effectively a nominated position.

What is interesting is that Messrs Barone and Baker are absolutely correct. It is a purely nominated position that nevertheless carries with it a great deal of importance. But this has been the case only in the age of television. The vice presidency was useless (a "bucket of warm spit" as FDR's first veep, James Garner, called it) until Richard Nixon was selected as Ike's nominee in 1952. Prior to that, the vice presidency was little more than a way for a party to mollify a regional faction relatively unhappy with the nominee for president. Television changed all of this. In the age of television, a vice president has at least four years to make himself known, and loved, by the public. Thanks to television, the office is now a great way to develop name recognition and positive feelings from the public.

Many vice presidential candidates have used the opportunity to great effect, which has increased the importance of the position. It is now much more important than it was when the Constitution and the 12th Amendment were written. The strange disconnection between the importance of the position and the manner in which it is filled is a sign that our Constitution is a document from an era long-since gone.

We have all kinds of strange, antiquated practices in this country for essentially the same reason. It is a price we pay for having a written and stable document as the basis of our government. If our goal is to write things down and make it really hard for future, crass politicians to erase them - we are going to retain some provisions that will eventually become outdated.

The selection of the vice president, then, is certainly an inefficiency. But it is not one borne for no reason. After all, if we could easily rewrite the Constitution when it comes to selecting the veep, we might also, under the spell of the kinds of bewitchments to which we as a public have occasionally fallen prey, rewrite more precious parts of our founding document!

-Jay Cost