Very soon now, surely before the Republican national convention meets in Tampa at the end of August, Mitt Romney will announce his selection of a running mate. This choice should be made with governing, not politics, in mind. The changed nature of the vice presidency over the last one-third century now requires a presidential candidate to think less about picking a good ticket-balancer and more about finding a full working partner.
Though charged by the Constitution only with presiding over the Senate, breaking ties, and succeeding to the presidency in the event of cataclysm, vice presidents today perform important roles not mentioned in the document. Modern VP’s are fully briefed on the most sensitive national secrets, are included in all key meetings on domestic and international issues, represent the United States abroad, and must be ready immediately to manage any crisis facing the country.
It was not always this way: Harry Truman came to the White House totally unaware of the development of the atomic bomb, on whose fateful use he had to decide almost immediately upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Lyndon Johnson, a political mega-weight, was humbled during John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot”, as was Nelson Rockefeller – a former governor of New York and scion of America’s most powerful family – during Gerald Ford’s brief tenure.
With these examples strongly in mind, then-Sen. Walter F. Mondale (Minn.) told Jimmy Carter that he would go on the 1976 Democratic ticket only if Carter agreed to certain things: That Mondale would have an office in the West Wing of the White House; that he would be included in all major meetings; that he would receive the same sensitive paper flow that the president got; and that he and Carter would have a weekly luncheon without any staff present. Carter assented.
Today, with Dick Cheney’s potent vice presidency under George W. Bush a fresh memory, these requests seem obvious and even quaint. But in their time they revolutionized the vice presidency, an achievement that was all the more remarkable because it was informal, not enshrined in law. Through his agreement with Carter, Mondale achieved an institutional standing that prevented his being treated by the Carter staff in the same way that LBJ and Rocky were treated by the West Wingers of their day.
Subsequent teams of presidents and vice presidents have adopted the same working arrangement, to the benefit of the country. As a result of the Carter-Mondale pattern, VP’s are no longer ignored, isolated, or humiliated – nor can we afford for them to be. But being the president’s most senior and most trusted advisor, especially on national security affairs, requires the competence that comes only with long experience in the federal government.
It is therefore essential that Romney’s running mate have significant federal service. Governors can bring vital leadership skills to the White House, but the five governors elected president since 1932 – FDR, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush — each recognized the need for a partner with deep knowledge of Washington. They therefore balanced their talent tickets with John Nance Garner, Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, and Cheney, respectively.
I would go further to say that the job posting for a modern vice president should read, “Hill experience required”. Every VP starting with Truman, except for former governors Spiro Agnew and Rockefeller, has served in one or both houses of Congress. This is important, because with a constitutional foot in both the executive and legislative branches of government, the vice president can be the White House’s most impactful lobbyist on Capitol Hill. The House and Senate are often likened to private clubs or fraternities in which it helps enormously to have been a member and to know the secret handshakes. Vice President Bush, for example, used to do his best lobbying in the House gym, as often as not in a towel in the steam room.
A vice president whose most recent experience with a legislative body may have been wrangling with state senators over the deer season cannot arrive in Washington and be immediately effective in the lobbyist-in-chief role.
So far I’ve said nothing about the raw politics of a vice presidential selection. But John McCain’s choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska in 2008 should serve as a warning that a political brainstorm late one evening can become a firestorm at daybreak. This is why Romney needs to find a running mate with whom he will feel proud and comfortable to serve in the White House — and, yes, who will help him get there in the first place.
At the turn of the last century, when the vice presidency was an ongoing political joke, “Mr. Dooley” (Finley Peter Dunne) said, “It is principally because of the vice president that most of our presidents have enjoyed such rugged health.” In selecting his running mate, Mitt Romney must make a very healthy choice, for himself and for the country.
Untermeyer was an assistant to Vice President Bush from 1981-83 and to President Bush from 1989-91.