Kerry's best vice presidential choice: Let public have a say

April 27, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - John Kerry is looking for a running mate, and he's getting lots of advice: Pick North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to make the ticket competitive in the South. Pick Rep. Richard A. Gephardt to energize organized labor. Pick Sen. Bob Graham to bolster support in the key swing state of Florida.

Here's my advice to Mr. Kerry on choosing a running mate: Don't.

It's an inescapable fact that a presidential nominee has to have a vice presidential nominee, though many would have been happy to do without. But there is no reason Mr. Kerry has to use the traditional selection method, which is only slightly more democratic than the British monarchy. Win or lose, he could contribute to a lasting improvement in our political system by devising a better way.

Someone who wants to attain the highest office in the land has to spend months talking to ordinary people, staking out positions, raising money and facing the judgment of millions of primary voters. Someone who wants the second-highest office in the land, however, doesn't have to do a blessed thing except catch the fancy of the nominee. If you can do that, you don't need any redeeming qualities.

For a long time, running mates have been at the whim of the presidential candidate - many of whom have made a howling mess of it but were elected anyway. George H. W. Bush came up with Dan Quayle, who was generally considered God's gift to comedians. Richard M. Nixon picked Spiro Agnew, who had to resign over his conviction for tax evasion. In 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt chose Henry Wallace, who later became an apologist for Stalin.

Sometimes the consequences are even more momentous. Fourteen vice presidents have gone on to the presidency, including nine who ascended when a president died or resigned. As John Adams, the first person in the job, noticed, "In this I am nothing, but I may be everything." We could wake up tomorrow to find President Cheney taking the oath of office.

Yet the American people have less real control over who occupies that office than over who becomes ambassador to Uzbekistan. If you like a presidential nominee but not his running mate, you do have the option of voting against the entire ticket. But in most cases, that would be about as sensible as taking a lifelong vow of celibacy because your first crush didn't work out. The only rational approach in those circumstances is to vote for the candidate you like and accept his running mate as an unalterable but, it is hoped, irrelevant appendage, like a black-sheep presidential in-law.

There is no particular reason voters need a say in the president's choice of in-laws. But given the stakes involved in selecting a vice president, the least we can do is introduce some democratic elements into the process.

In the early years of the republic, the people had a big say: The office went to the runner-up in the presidential election. That's how John Adams got a vice president, Thomas Jefferson, who was his chief political rival and leader of the opposing party - and who ran against him and won in the following election. The drawbacks of that system led to the 12th Amendment, requiring voters to choose one ticket or the other.

But the Constitution doesn't say we have to leave the choice entirely to the nominee. Mr. Kerry could offer a list of candidates he considers suitable and let the Democratic convention delegates take it from there. Or he could let delegates nominate three or four possibilities and then make his choice from that list. Or he could turn it over to the convention and invite aspiring veeps to campaign for the job.

Any of these would give the voting public a vastly greater role than it normally has. It would also have some advantages for Mr. Kerry, such as attracting favorable attention - after all, who could possibly object? It would also allow him to contrast his open, inclusive approach with the secretive, Machiavellian style of the incumbent vice president. It could win strong public approval. Heck, maybe it would be so popular that President Bush would have no choice but to follow suit.

Maybe it won't be Mr. Kerry, but sooner or later, a presidential nominee ought to chuck the undemocratic custom that prevails today. Come Jan. 20, 2005, someone will be a heartbeat away from the presidency. And if the past is any guide, it will be someone you and I didn't choose.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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