The Constitution has required that the vice president be on the ballot, in one form or another, since our nation's founding. But I was relieved to learn that I'm not the only one to think the way we pick VPs in the heat of an election cycle seems somewhat nutty.
In the early 1970s, Michigan Sen. Bob Griffin proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would have ended the direct election of vice presidents and instead let presidents appoint their VPs, subject to congressional approval, after being sworn in.
Of course, the idea didn't go anywhere. But it wasn't without its supporters — especially after Richard Nixon's veep, Spiro Agnew, had to resign over accusations of extortion and tax fraud.
At the time, reporters like Tom Wicker of the New York Times made a case similar to mine, according to John D. Feerick's The Twenty-fifth Amendment: Its Complete History and Applications. Wicker wrote:
The fact is that Presidents dictate their choices for Vice President with ruthless disregard for any[thing] but political qualifications, and political conventions approve them with no 'inquisition' at all. The further fact is that no Vice President is really elected by the people or their electors; he is an appendage to their Presidential choice.
Wicker's point is twofold: 1) that VPs are often chosen out of "ruthless" political calculation alone, and 2) that voters don't really get to vote on whether they support the VP.
Some of the contemporary political science research backs Wicker up. "There's little evidence that voters make any consideration based on the vice president," says Joseph E. Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami and the author of several studies on the vice presidency.
You'd think that nominees wouldn't then let electoral factors seep into their choices. "But they do, and sometimes that gives us vice presidents who don't do what the presidents, or the presidents' voters, wanted," Uscinski says.
You don't need to go back to the 1970s to see how short-term electoral considerations can warp presidential candidates' VP picks — with really worrying implications.
The most obvious recent example is Sarah Palin in 2008, when Sen. John McCain — hoping for a Hail Mary comeback in the polls — picked the obviously unqualified Alaska governor in the hopes of firing up his party's base.
McCain and Palin lost, of course. But McCain certainly theoretically could have won, and he could have died while in office. We may have risked a disastrous presidency in part because we make presidents choose their successors when an election is at stake.
There's enough historical evidence of this happening for us to know that it isn't just an unlikely possibility. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln chose southern white Unionist — and, it turned out, white supremacist — Andrew Johnson for his VP, in a bid for geographic diversity. After Lincoln was assassinated, Johnson advanced a disastrous set of Reconstruction policies totally at odds with what the "great emancipator" and his Republican base wanted. (Plus, Lincoln lost the Southern state of Kentucky that year anyway.)
Discrepancies between the POTUS and the VP have also made leadership crises more difficult to resolve, and may even create an incentive for political assassins, Uscinski wrote in one recent paper. In 1881, President James Garfield was shot twice in the back but stubbornly clung to life for 80 days while completely incapacitated. Some lawmakers wanted to resolve the crisis by making VP Chester Arthur president but feared the political implications of doing so, because Arthur and Garfield came from different factions and had completely contradictory policies on civil service reform.
"Presidential candidates have often opted for running mates who are politically different from the head of the ticket ... to increase the chances of winning the general election," Uscinski writes. "But when presidents and vice presidents differ significantly, the country could inherit espousing policies the country does not democratically support."
Uscinski's argument here isn't just that an "unqualified" VP could become president despite not enjoying the support of much of the country. It's that we explicitly look to vice presidents to complement the ideological profiles of the nominees, thereby intentionally inserting confusion into our government that could, potentially, be avoided under a different system.