Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Enough to Make One Veep

James Gillray on political campaigners (1795).  Plus ça change...

Political journalism, though specializing in the vacuous, abhors a vacuum. It rushes toward whatever specks of matter become visible at the horizon of the void.  Hence this week it’s all about Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential candidate-elect.  As careful observers will have noticed, Gladly Lerne Gladly Teche is a radical blog that eschews all issues trivial and superficial in its beeline towards the essential.  I do not intend, therefore, to join the gaggle in a discussion of Mr. Ryan’s possible actuarial and accounting prowess, his presumed behavior, cliff side, to little old ladies in wheelchairs, or the arcana of tax law as it relates to living in a “listed” historical house.  Instead, I want to wonder aloud why Americans are so careless with their democracy.  This topic occasioned my only attempt ever to publish an op-ed piece in the national press, four years ago.  The pain of rejection left permanent scars.  Fortunately the editorial board of Gladly Lerne Gladly Teche is more visionary.

            The hypocrisy surrounding vice-presidential “picks” is egregious.  The chosen person, we are told, stands “one heartbeat away” from the presidency, and thus must have the potential to lead at a moment's capricious notice.  In fact the person is chosen to “balance the ticket,” “help out with the blue-collar vote”, “appeal to women,” “attract evangelicals” or serve some similar function helpful to the aims of the presidential candidate.

            The heated nature of our presidential campaigns creates at least a plausible illusion of democracy in action.  We really are allowed to choose between two contenders.  The outcome is seldom a foregone conclusion, and sometimes it is a real nail-biter.  Even the process by which the presidential contenders emerge has some democratic features, however attenuated.  But the process by which vice-presidential candidates are chosen is one that Louis XIV might approve.

            At the moment, Mr. Romney, Mr. Ryan’s sole elector, has not even been nominated for president by the Republican Party.  We may judge this a mere technicality; but it underscores the blatantly undemocratic nature of the process of selecting vice presidents.  To show how it can be anti-democratic as well as undemocratic we need look no further than the history of the current incumbent.  I have never met Mr. Biden, but I am inclined to like him.  His classical pseudo-proletarian bonhomie is attractive, and there is a humanizing quality to his frequent verbal gaffes.  He has some admirable goals and seems to work hard to achieve them.  Sam Rayburn, Mister Democrat to his generation, was famously reported to have told John Nance Garner that the vice-presidency was “not worth a bucket of warm spit”—in which “spit” was actually a cowardly journalistic substitution for what Rayburn had actually said, what Shakespeare had called the gilded puddle that beasts would cough at.  Well, Mr. Biden proves that it is worth a bucket of warm spit.  But how does he come to stand “a heartbeat away from the presidency”?

Sam Rayburn with osculating veep

Vice President John Nance Garner: FDR never kissed him
            Though elections may suggest, vaguely, people the voters want to be president, they are usually less clear in identifying people they don’t want.  But this generality is contradicted by the political history of Vice President Biden.  He twice ran for the presidential nomination, first in 1988, and again in 2008.  In 1988 his candidacy foundered on the exposure of his plagiarism of his own biography!  He had lifted it from the campaign propaganda of British Prime Minister Neil Kinnock.  There is no space here for the details, though I can recommend them to the genteel reader, who is likely to find therein an amusing gloss on the current flap about “You didn’t build that!” Candidate Biden, having been caught in an act of intellectual dishonesty for which most of my academic colleagues would severely discipline, perhaps even expel, a sophomore undergraduate, chose to drop out.

Even Kinnock thought it was funny
Twenty years later cultural amnesia had done its healing work, and Mr. Biden once again entered the lists in the Democratic Party’s presidential primary.  Here he faced such awesome competitors as Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and the little known but incandescent Barack Obama.  Biden did not get to first base.  It is debatable whether he made it as far as the batter’s box.  His fatal compliment of his rival Obama as “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” was widely suspected of crypto-racism by fellow Democrats.  His showing in the polls was abysmal, though he was slightly ahead of fellow single-digiteer Stephen Colbert, the comedian.  (Is it relevant that Colbert was not actually a candidate?)

            The electors of the Democratic Party in 2008 took quite a while to decide on the person they wanted to be their president.  On the other hand they reached early agreement on some they did not want, Senator Joe Biden conspicuously among them.  One may fairly point out that Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain, who showed considerable staying power in their primary campaigns and gained large numbers of actual votes, enjoyed more democratic legitimacy to stand “one heartbeat away from the presidency” than did Joe Biden.

            Within the context of a system of presidential politics savaged by the symbiosis of the power of Big Money to buy unlimited advertising time and an electorate sufficiently ignorant or indifferent as to form its political decisions on the basis of thirty-second television commercials, the undemocratic mode of anointing vice-presidential candidates will not seem a matter of high priority.  Yet it is odd that nobody even mentions it.  Is our current system really so superior to that of my sixth grade homeroom?  There the person with the second number of votes was vice president.  That imitated the original scheme of our national government, incidentally, under which each elector in the Electoral College cast two votes: most votes, president; second most, vice president.  I am not sure John Adams was a bad vice president just because George Washington didn’t pick him.  Though we are short on bipartisan solutions, we are long on bipartisan problems.  Perhaps the return to a little built-in bipartisan cooperation wouldn’t hurt.


  1. The process by which the Venetians elected the Doge has much to recommend it.

  2. It is good to hear from Punditarian again. He makes learned allusion to the somewhat complex process by which the Venetian electors chose their chief executive. It was a ten-step process combining lottery and indirect election. Y'all can check it out at the following link:

  3. Dear Professor Fleming,

    Thank you for noticing my comment. I have been continuing to read your fascinating observations but have not thought it apropos to comment on your avocational pursuits or family news. May I now offer my heartiest congratulations to you on both!

    The paper to which you linked was known to me, because of my abiding interest in the long and overall successful history of the Doge-ship, but I had not studied it carefully enough to consider its relevance to the election of our American leaders.

    Here are some intitial reactions. As you note, the history of the office of the Vice President is salient. As first conceived, the Vice President was to have been the runner-up in the Presidential election -- which is why the Vice President has no Constitutional role in the federal government at all, other than to serve as President in case of the President's demise or removal from office.

    With the development of more or less permanent factions or political parties, it became important that the Vice President should be from the same faction as the President, and the electoral process was altered, so that we now elect a President and a Vice President as a "ticket."

    The selection of the Vice Presidential candidate is now heralded as the first test of a Presidential candidate's presidentialness.

    Nevertheless, we can say that the system, or lack of it, has worked fairly well for 200 years.

    Let us look at the Venetian system in contrast. The complex and according to contemporary accounts apparently obscure and confusing system worked reasonably well for 700 years. It was intended to elect for a life term, an executive with limited but extensive power - a constitutional monarch, if you will. The system was intended to prevent the monopolization of the office by any one family or faction. And by participating in it, as the paper to which you linked notes, the electors demonstrated their seriousness and commitment to the election of a good Doge.

    I don't think your suggestion, that we go back to the original Constitutional program, will work anymore.

    I have been wondering if a system similar to the Venetian, however, would work for the selection of a Vice President.

    That would probably not work, either, since the electors of the Doge constituted a permanent council of the oligarchy, an hereditary class. Our Electoral College is composed of electors who serve only for the single election for which they were elected. The powers of the Electoral College are circumscribed; the members of the Electoral College do not all meet in person, and in the event that their ballots do not elect a President, the election is immediately thrown to the House of Representatives.

    Perhaps we should have a permanent Electoral College instead.

  4. I should add that 14 Vice-Presidents have become President, 9 of them through the President's death, incapacity, or resignation.

    Five of the nine (all of the 4 in the XIXth Century) served only the remainder of their term, and were never elected again.

    Three were elected to a full term, but did not run for a second term.

    My conclusion is that the Vice-Presidency is not usually a stepping-stone to the Presidency, although it does happen.

    There have been 47 Vice-Presidents of the United States.