Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Enough to Make One Veep

James Gillray on political campaigners (1795).  Plus ├ža 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.