Elections

Don’t like the way we pick presidents? How about vice presidents?

Chester Arthur
Chester Arthur wikimedia commons

Love them or hate them, you have to admit one thing: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both endured long, grueling campaigns in which they were vetted by a gantlet of voters and reporters.

Their running mates? Not so much.

Vice presidential candidates are essentially chosen on the whim of one person, the presidential nominee. That includes Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who will both be in North Carolina this week.

Kaine will visit a High Point manufacturer Wednesday before holding a rally in Greensboro. Pence will appear at a Thursday morning rally in downtown Raleigh.

Each has been on the national stage for little more than two weeks. That’s a sharp contrast to Clinton and Trump, who have been running for a year or more, engaging in dozens of debates and countless interviews.

Even without such vetting, nearly a third of vice presidents have made their way to the White House.

Eight assumed office on the death of a president. One, Gerald Ford, did so after a president resigned. Five were elected president after having served as vice president.

Vice presidents haven’t always been chosen by the presidential nominees.

In America’s first elections, the vice president was the second-highest vote-getter in the presidential race. Later vice presidents were chosen by party insiders. In 1880 Republican Chester Arthur was picked not by nominee James Garfield but by a rival power broker. The candidates had barely met.

So what’s the best way to pick a vice president?

Joel Goldstein has spent a lot of time thinking about that. He’s a law professor at St. Louis University who has written extensively about the vice presidency.

“This is a classic case where you can point to the way we do it and say it doesn’t seem entirely democratic,” he said Tuesday. “But the likely impact of any reform is much worse than the system we have.”

Goldstein said the current system has built-in checks. One, vice presidential candidates have to be acceptable to convention delegates who nominate them. They also have to be solid enough not to create a distraction for the presidential candidates who choose them.

And eventually they find themselves scrutinized by the media and voters and analyzed during a debate with their partisan counterpart.

“I tend to think that the idea that we’re leaving this to one person is overstated, given all the checks that are built into the system,” Goldstein said.

That doesn’t mean the best candidates are always tapped. Think Republican Spiro Agnew in 1968 or Republican Sarah Palin in 2008. And Democrat Geraldine Ferraro was a sort of Hail Mary selection in 1984 by Walter Mondale, who was far behind incumbent Ronald Reagan and on his way to one of the worst landslide losses in American history.

But Goldstein says other ways – electing a vice president separately or even waiting until after the presidential election – would present other problems. So we’re left with the system we have.

It’s all worth thinking about when the men-who-could-be-president stump in North Carolina this week.

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