Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Voting for Vice President

The Vice Presidency of the United States, as its illustrious first occupant, John Adams, famously observed, is "the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his imagination conceived." That may be somewhat less true now than it was then. Even so, it seemed to me in my political science days and still seems so now, that seldom if ever has the presence of the second person on the ticket made a decisive difference. It is generally agreed that LBJ did that for JFK. It is sometimes suggested that Al Gore reinforced Bill Clinton's claim to be a "New Democrat." More often than not, running mates may do damage instead, as Lodge may have done to Nixon in 1960 and Tom Eagleton certainly did to McGovern in 1972. Someone - I think it may have been Nixon, but I am not sure - said a candidate would be better off running on his own, without a running mate. During the tedious run up to Joe Biden's ultimately unsurprising choice of Kamala Harris, I often thought that he too might well be better off just running against Trump, without having to choose a running mate from among competing party factions and identity groups. Alas that was not an option!

I am old enough to remember when the vice presidential selection came quickly and sometimes somewhat poorly orchestrated, almost as an afterthought at the end of the convention. In the new system, the selection gets lots of attention in advance, and the candidate is seriously vetted. But is the new system all that much better? If Eagleton exemplified what could go wrong under the older system, Sarah Palin illustrated the pitfalls of our present approach, where the pick now is expected to serve as a sort of pre-convention news splash. Admittedly, the older system gave us Spiro Agnew. but it also gave us Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. Like our now sadly obsolete comic-opera conventions, the older way was problematic in all sorts of ways, but it did produce some fine figures.

So now the rosters are complete. The campaign posters can all be printed. It's still basically Biden vs. Trump - hardly Harris vs. Pence. But, for those, for example, who worry that Biden is too much a nostalgia candidate hoping to lead us back to a pre-Trump "normal," when in fact that "normal" was  already problematic and was what led us to where we are now, they may take some comfort in the Harris-Pence matchup, where the nostalgia for a long gone America that never actually was is on the other side. Whatever else she may bring to Biden's ticket, Kamala clearly represents a future very different from Pence's ideologized American white Protestant past.


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