The American System For Choosing a Vice President is Idiotic

There are a lot of factors that go into the selection of a vice president, but at this point it seems inarguable that the major factor is the degree to which the VP candidate will help the presidential candidate get elected. Think about that for second. The driving factor in selecting the #2 politician in the country ostensibly has nothing to do with how they will perform their job. Ideally, there will be a high correlation between excelling at the job and helping the ticket, but as the 2008 election demonstrates, that correlation can occasionally be dangerously low.

This is a terrible outcome for America. No politician should be chosen based on their ability as a campaign spokesman, let alone the vice president. The question everybody should be asking is how we can alter the VP selection process to incentivize the selection of the best person for the job.

One idea is to move the VP selection until after the election, but that robs the public of important information about the candidates and their future presidencies. (As far as I can tell, this is the only legitimate reason for choosing a vice president during the summer.)

A better idea is to allow the president to choose their VP after the election, but force them to narrow it down to three or four candidates over the summer. Under this system McCain could have merely named Palin as a finalist. This would have allowed the campaign to get some of the benefits of her presence without actually risking that she would become vice president. Nominating multiple candidates also gives more information to voters because they now get to know three or four people the candidate highly approves of rather than just one.

This system is not without potential downsides. Sometimes picking somebody based purely on electoral calculations is a good heuristic for picking the best person for the job. During the Republican primary the GOP flirted win the idea of picking somebody without regard for electoral concerns and the results would have been disastrous (although maybe Obama crushing Bachmann would have been good for the country as a whole.) It’s also possible that by spreading scrutiny among three or four candidates it will be easier for a president to sneak an otherwise unacceptable extremist into the VP slot. Nevertheless, I think the benefits of making it easier for the president to choose somebody qualified outweigh the potential costs of making it easier to choose somebody extreme.

The bottom line is that the incentives in our current VP selection process are terrible. The system is so institutionalized that it’s hard to envision it changing, but people would be wise to start thinking about designing something better.


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