The real reason running mates matter

June 16, 2008
Of the past 11 VPs, 7 went on to become their party's presidential nominee
    We're already hearing plenty of chatter about possible vice presidential choices. But as pundits and politicians debate who will provide party tickets with the most electoral bang, the one thing we won't hear is why the VP selection is important.
    It is important, though not for electoral reasons. Studies have found that vice presidents have a negligible impact on the electorates' voting decision. Still, the choice is arguably the biggest decision the candidates will make through the entire campaign period.
    The reason goes largely unstated, but whoever the president-to-be names as VP is also most likely to be his successor. And not just in case of death or resignation, but in another more important way.
    Barring unforeseen circumstances, the person who is elected the vice president in November will become the prohibitive favorite for his or her party's nomination for the presidency in 2016.
    Recent history shows the way. Since 1952, seven of the past 11 vice presidents have gained their parties' presidential nomination. This was a reversal of a historic norm that has still not fully been processed by the electorate. From 1836 until 1960, when Richard Nixon broke the streak, only vice presidents who moved up due to the death of a president were able to claim their parties' nomination for the presidency.
    But since then, all but the disgraced Spiro Agnew, the deceased Nelson Rockefeller, the ridiculed Dan Quayle, and Dick Cheney (who has suffered heart trouble), were chosen to serve as standard-bearers for their party in a presidential race.
    There is little reason to believe this will change. People, including presidents, may view vice presidential succession as the equivalent of voter ratification of their presidential term.
    There are other reasons that this choice of vice presidents is particularly important. Vice presidents have increasingly become players in politics and governing.
    Dick Cheney, widely seen as the single most powerful person in the Bush administration, is just the latest example of this trend. While for years the position was seen as "not worth a bucket of warm spit" – in the cleaned-up gibe of FDR's first vice president John Nance Garner – it has grown to be an important component in the executive branch.
    Starting with Harry Truman's decision to make the VP a member of the National Security Council, presidents have added to their running mate's portfolio, giving them key political and policy roles to play. This is actually a wise move by presidents. The VPs are frequently old political hands, with contacts and experience independent of the president, which can help craft and enact policy.
    In a similar vein, the vice president is one of the only executive officials in the presidential administration that the president cannot get rid of during an initial term. Presidents can fire the entire cabinet, replace all the generals and even divorce a spouse and disown a child, but they have no power to act against the vice president. It is a choice that presidents have to live with – and sometimes, live down.
    Since vice presidents have their own ambitions and most likely have a bit of a power base to go with it, the president must keep VPs involved and engaged in their administration.
    After all, it is not unheard-of for a vice president to rebel against a president. Garner opposed Roosevelt at the end of his second term, and it had a disastrous effect on the president's policy plans. Giving the vice president a real role reduces or eliminates potential friction that can damage a presidency.
    Vice presidential selection is set to be one of the focuses of the campaign battlefield for the next several months. There will be a lot of armchair quarterbacking that focuses on the electoral benefits of possible candidates. But that debate misses the bigger picture.
    The VP selection is not just some short-term decision. It is the campaign move most likely to shape both this coming presidency and the next.
    Joshua Spivak, a public relations executive and attorney, is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College, in Long Island, N.Y.