There are many aspects of the U.S. presidential campaigns which could be importantly improved. In the last cycle of 2008, I joined with former Speaker Newt Gingrich and others in an appeal to reform the presidential debates. Although none of our reforms were accepted in the 2008 format, the debate moderator often intervened to produce more back-and-forth discussion by the candidates, something we had especially called for. I hope that, at this very early point in the planning for the 2012 debates, the producers and the candidates will consider formalizing this and other changes in the debate format.
There is another issue which I would like to raise this early in the process. It is the issue of the timing of the naming of the vice presidential candidate. In the 2012 race, of course, the Democratic side already has its vice presidential nominee, the current Vice President Joe Biden. So my suggestions would apply this time only to the Republicans, but I mean them to apply to both parties when there is not an incumbent vice president running for re-election.
The problem, as I see it, is that the nominees of each party wait until a few days before their respective conventions before announcing their vice presidential choice. More often than not in recent years, this has produced problems for both parties.
Until the television, and now internet, age, of course, this procedure seemed to work relatively well. Presidential nominees generally chose safe and often obscure candidates for reasons of geographical, ideological and other political reasons, but the vice presidential office itself seemed less important than it does today, and vice presidents traditionally suffered silently in the shadow of the president who selected them. After World War II, and the death of four-term President Roosevelt, however, the public and the media took increasing interest in the office. President Harry Truman had become vice president when Roosevelt made a last-minute change in 1944, replacing incumbent Vice President Henry Wallace. Two months after the 1945 inauguration, Roosevelt died and the “unknown” Truman was the leader of the nation and the free world. History indicates that was a fortuitous result (especially in light of Wallace’s radical and unstable views), but subsequent choices were often problematic, either in the presidential campaign itself or later.
Truman’s choice of Alben Barkley was relatively harmless, but there was little indication that he was really prepared to assume the presidency. Dwight Eisenhower’s choice of Richard Nixon faced a scandal soon after his name was announced, but he survived it with his famous “Checkers” speech. Although Nixon later was elected president, and accomplished some important things in foreign policy, he finally had to resign his office because of Watergate. Nixon’s own vice president, Spiro Agnew, had taken bribes as an official in Maryland, but this did not come out until years later, and he, too, had to resign. 1964 GOP nominee Barry Goldwater chose Congressman William Miller for his veep, but he was unknown and little help to the GOP campaign against President Lyndon Johnson and his popular veep choice of Hubert Humphrey. In 1972, Democrat George McGovern’s vice presidential choice, Thomas Eagleton, was revealed to have had mental treatment soon after being named, and finally had to resign only days before the Democratic convention. In 1976, both nominees chose already nationally-known running mates, Bob Dole and Walter Mondale without any problems. In 1980, Ronald Reagan did the same with George H. W. Bush, but in 1984, Mondale now his party’s presidential nominee selected Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman candidate, but there were problems with her husband’s finances, and this affected the Democratic ticket adversely. In 1988, George H.W. Bush, now his party’s presidential nominee, picked an unknown Indiana senator Dan Quayle, and was immediately criticized for the choice. Although Quayle’s treatment by the media was often unfair, and he did not excel in his campaign appearances, the ticket won. But in 1992, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton chose well-known Al Gore to be his running mate and defeated Bush-Quayle. In 1996, former GOP veep nominee Bob Dole became a presidential nominee, and picked the familiar figure of Jack Kemp as his running mate. In 2000, George W. Bush selected experienced but relatively unknown former Congressman Dick Cheney for veep, and Democratic nominee selected Joe Lieberman. Since the final result was the closest in history, and the most controversial, it could be argued that, among other factors, the vice presidential choices determined the outcome (although it must be noted that Gore-Lieberman won the popular vote by more than half a million votes).
Walter Mondale had assumed a significant new role as vice president in 1980, and this continued with both Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney. Vice presidential nominees (and vice presidents) frequently become presidential nominees. Today, the candidates for vice president are rightfully examined almost as closely as the presidential candidates.
In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry chose his senate colleague and major opponent, John Edwards to be his running mate. As with Spiro Agnew, an existing scandal involving Edwards did not become known during the campaign, nor during the 2008 election when Edwards ran again for president, but the scandal did come out later and has destroyed his political career. Sarah Palin was John McCain’s choice in 2008, and like Dan Quayle was often treated unfairly by the press. She was named at the last-minute, and most of her problems in the campaign arose from her inexperience on the national stage.
My point is that naming a vice presidential choice a week or two, or a few days, before a presidential convention carries unnecessary risk. Interestingly, it was Ronald Reagan in 1976, fighting a close contest with President Gerald Ford, who came up with a better approach. He did it for short-term political reasons. Trailing Ford early in the primaries, Reagan chose Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker to be on his ticket long before the traditional time, and during the primary season. Although he ultimately lost to Ford, the strategy helped Reagan.
In short, I am suggesting that the presidential candidates for both parties name their vice presidential choices early in the campaign. This gives the public and the media plenty of time for vetting the candidate, and avoids last-minute political problems that have often plagued presidential campaigns. It has the added benefit of enabling the presidential and vice presidential nominees to get to know one another, and to find the best way the vice presidential nominee can help in the final part of the campaign against the opposing party. A third benefit is that it gives the vice presidential nominee valuable national campaign experience.There is little downside to this new procedure, even as the old way, with Google-type searches and a myriad of blogs, is increasingly fraught with the political danger.