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There really is no need to talk about vice-presidential selection right now, but in recent weeks discussion of the subject has filled pages, airwaves and cyberspace as a number of knowledgeable observers have approached the subject from imaginable (and unimaginable) angles. Pundits have declared Vice President Joe Biden dumped and have anointed any number of Republican running mates. And one of the nation’s leading political writers has called for a new procedure to select vice-presidential candidates.

To paraphrase Dan Quayle during the 1992 vice-presidential debate, it’s time to take a deep breath. It’s much ado about very little. The vice presidency matters, but the Democratic vice-presidential nomination is a done deal, the Republican choice is too contingent to even speculate about and both choices will, and should, be made as they normally are, by the presidential candidates.

Bye-bye Biden?

Not since “Paul is dead” has a rumor based on so little proved as enduring as the prediction that President Barack Obama will dump Vice President Biden. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (NY), Sen. Kay Hagan (NC) and even former President Bill Clinton have all been anointed as Obama’s likely or best running mate for 2012. That some of the suggestions have come from Republican outsiders has not depressed the chatter.

One need only play the record forward to appreciate that this rumor is fantasy politics.

To begin with, Biden has been one of the most consequential vice presidents in history. By all accounts, he has emerged as an influential adviser to Obama and to others in the administration. Obama has given him high-profile, presidential-level assignments and authority. Biden helped implement the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Iraq withdrawal. He helped negotiate the START treaty, the 2010 tax deal and the agreement to raise the debt ceiling. These assignments suggest that Biden’s constituent of one values his contributions. Biden may well emerge as the most significant vice president in history, a status no one would have predicted at the start of his term.

An engaged vice president still might find himself in professional peril if he was a political liability, a lesson Henry Wallace and Nelson A. Rockefeller learned in 1944 and 1975 respectively. Neither had anywhere near Biden’s influence within the administration and, unlike Biden, both had major enemies in the president’s inner circle and in their own parties.

There is no evidence that Obama wants to get rid of Biden but, even if he did, it’s not easy to dump a vice president. In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower wanted Richard Nixon to move to the cabinet where, he said, Nixon could chart his own course to the presidency. Nixon understood that his best course was to remain vice president.

Nixon wanted to get rid of his first vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, in 1972 to pave the way for John Connally to succeed him. Ultimately, Nixon decided that it made better sense to keep a detested vice president than complicate his own reelection by dividing the party.

Whereas Eisenhower and Nixon were in strong political positions when they dreamed of dumping their vice presidents, George H. W. Bush was in a weak position when some of his closest aides concluded that dropping Quayle would help Bush. Bush ultimately concluded that the costs of changing running mates exceeded the benefits.

Biden might be more willing than some of those mentioned to be a good soldier and take one for the team. Even so, a change would cost Obama. Biden is an important link to middle class voters who have been hurt by the nation’s economic problems. Dumping him would create perceptions of desperation.

No alternative other than the two Clintons has anywhere near Biden’s stature or experience.  Both Clinton vice-presidential scenarios are based on the assumption that she plans to run for president in 2016, an ambition she denies. Assuming that is her plan, one would question whether either Clinton vice presidency would serve that goal. For most political figures, the vice presidency is the best springboard to a later presidential campaign, something Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush and Al Gore all discovered. All but Nixon had failed to secure their party’s nomination before being vice president but won it thereafter. Secretary Clinton is one of the rare public figures who arguably would not see her presidential prospects helped by serving as someone else’s number two. If she plans to seek the presidency in 2016, she may prefer to stand apart from a second Obama administration to protect her independence. Aside from the fact that a Bill Clinton vice presidency is simply unimaginable, the same calculation would be among the many reasons the former president will not become Obama’s running mate. Not only would his vice presidency compromise her independence, it would also cast his larger than life shadow over the political landscape, thereby effectively diminishing Secretary Clinton and damaging, not advancing, her prospects.  (For my earlier dismissal of Dump Biden talk, see here.)

Palin’s successor

The Republican vice presidential candidate is as uncertain as Biden’s candidacy is certain. Those the Great Mentioner has mentioned include Sens. Marco Rubio (FL) and John Thune (SD), Govs. Chris Christie (NJ), Mitch Daniels (IN), Nikki Haley (SC), Bobby Jindal (LA), Bob McDonnell (VA), Brian Sandoval (NV) and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN), among many others. The discussion is totally speculative with little information to make any sort of judgments. We don’t know who will be the presidential nominee making the choice; whether he or she will have a unified or divided party; what his or her strengths and weaknesses will be; what the political climate will be next summer; how any of the prospective vice-presidential candidates will fare between now and then; and a host of other variables.

What looks plausible now may not appear so in August 2012 and vice versa. In November of the prior election years, who would have anticipated the selections of Spiro T. Agnew (1968), Bob Dole (1976), George H.W. Bush (1980), Dan Quayle (1988), Jack Kemp (1996), Dick Cheney (2000) or Sarah Palin (2008)? Many were distinguished candidates and public figures, but their nominations simply did not seem likely until shortly before they were announced.

If history is a guide (and it may not be), many of those most frequently mentioned are unlikely to stand aside the eventual presidential nominee at the vice-presidential rollout because they cannot pass through the various traditional running mate filters. First, most running mates since 1976 have appeared to possess “presidential” quality at the time chosen. Surely Walter Mondale (1976), George H. W. Bush (1980), Lloyd Bentsen (1988), Al Gore (1992), Jack Kemp (1996), Dick Cheney (2000), Joe Lieberman (2000) and Joe Biden (2008) were widely perceived as leading public figures. The choice of Bob Dole (1976) surprised many, yet Dole subsequently emerged as one of the leading public servants of his generation. Even John Edwards had run an impressive campaign in the 2004 presidential primaries to position himself as a presidential prospect.

Most of those chosen had established themselves over lengthy service in traditional vice-presidential feeder positions: senator, governor, high officer in the executive branch or member of the House of Representatives. As shown in Chart 1, those selected had an average of 14.5 years experience in prior vice-presidential feeder positions. Even if one removes Biden from the calculation, the average is 12.8 years; if Palin, the opposite outlier, is also removed, it’s 13.7. Of those chosen, only Palin had fewer than 6 years of prior experience. Only two others had as little as six years experience (Ferraro and Edwards) and Edwards was boosted by his runner-up position in the presidential primaries.

Chart 1: Years of prior public service in traditional VP feeder positions of first-time VP candidates

Many of those most frequently mentioned this time fare poorly on this measure. Only Thune matches the average prior experience of recent candidates. All except Thune and Daniels come closer to Palin’s years of experience than to the average. Even Jindal and Pawlenty have less experience than all but three recent nominees.

Chart 2: Years of public service in traditional VP feeder positions of prospective candidates (as of August 2012)

Of course, in these times where skepticism about government runs high, the Republican presidential nominee may place less value on finding a seasoned running mate than in years past. There are risks to such an approach. Lengthy participation in a high government position helps provide credibility as a prospective president, allows a public figure to demonstrate his or her aptitude and public policy expertise over a period of time and provides some protection against a vetting disaster. The recent stories regarding Rubio’s biographical embellishments provide a cautionary tale regarding the risks of choosing someone who has received relatively little prior scrutiny.

Many of the names most bandied about seem implausible because their experience has been primarily or exclusively as governors. As Chart 1 shows, only one of the last 13 first-time running mates had been a governor. In the last 60 years, only Palin and Agnew have been selected as running mates from the statehouse. The aversion to governors as running mates seems to relate, in part, to a belief that a vice-presidential candidate should have some national security credential. Rightly or wrongly, senators are generally viewed as having such expertise, a fair assessment of most senators selected as recent vice-presidential nominees.

The prospects of the sitting governors would be further reduced if the Republican nominee is Mitt Romney, Rick Perry or Herman Cain. Recent selections have established an unbroken rule that Washington outsiders who win the nomination (i.e. governors) choose Washington insiders. Think Carter-Mondale, Reagan-Bush, Dukakis-Bentsen, Clinton-Gore, Bush-Cheney. Not since the Tom Dewey-Earl Warren Republican ticket in 1948 have two governors been paired. That was a very different time, and Dewey at least had the national stature a prior presidential run conferred.

Do presidential endorsements produce vice-presidential selections?

The endorsements of Romney by Pawlenty and Christie and of Perry by Jindal and Sandoval prompted some speculation that in each case the endorser hoped to wind up as the endorsee’s running mate. That’s a possible but unlikely scenario. In modern times, the running mate rarely comes from those long associated with the camp of the eventual presidential nominee, the 2000 selection of Cheney being a rare exception.

Presidential nominees choose their running mates in anticipation of the general election campaign, a timing that encourages them to emphasize the future political payoff of the choice, not repaying past favors. Bush didn’t pick Cheney out of gratitude but because Cheney provided some needed gravitas and national security credibility, and Bush thought they could work well together.

The endorsement-yields-second-spot speculation vis a vis Pawlenty, Christie, Jindal and Sandoval presumes that the party emerges from the primaries united behind Romney or Perry and that come August 2012 the victor feels no need to use the second choice to help unify the party or otherwise position himself for the campaign.

If Romney or Perry receives the nomination, they are more likely to find a running mate from a rival camp or someone who has remained neutral. That was the pattern Reagan followed in 1980 when he first sought to entice former President Ford and then chose George H.W. Bush, his main campaign rival. Reagan surely preferred political allies like Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-NV) — who wanted the nomination — but Reagan recognized that his best political course was to unify his party and signal that he was open to views other than his own. In 1976, Carter chose Mondale, someone closely identified with Hubert H. Humphrey, the main but never announced alternative to his nomination. Bentsen did not support Dukakis during the 1988 primaries, nor did Gore support Clinton four years later.

The most intriguing example of choosing someone from the rival camp came in 1996 when Dole selected Kemp as his running mate. Dole and Kemp had traded insults throughout their careers, which included policy clashes during the Reagan administration and rival presidential candidacies in 1988.  In 1996, Kemp waited until Dole’s nomination was inevitable and then endorsed one of Dole’s rivals, Steve Forbes. Dole made disparaging remarks at the time about “the Quarterback,” and the Dole endorsements by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Dick Lugar as they ended their presidential campaigns stood in contrast to Kemp’s course. Time magazine reported that pundits were incredulous at Kemp’s bad timing. Several months later, Dole chose Kemp as his running mate. The appeal of a presidential-caliber running mate who would help unify the party and emphasize an important set of issues proved far more important than endorsement politics.

Who will (and should) choose the running mate?

What does seem certain is that the Republican nominee, whoever it may be, will choose his or her running mate, not rely on the convention to make the selection as was the case during most of our history and as Washington Post reporter Michael Leahy has recently suggested would be a better approach. A return to convention selection would not provide the democratic benefits promised, would result in less qualified running mates, would interfere with the historic development of the vice presidency that has occurred especially since Mondale’s term and is politically implausible.

It seems unlikely that convention selection would prove to be a more democratic approach. In all likelihood, the presidential candidate would manipulate the process by designating a preferred running mate. The convention would be forced to accept that suggestion unless it preferred to forfeit the election by publicly rejecting its nominee’s judgment at the campaign’s outset. Alternatively, if the process was truly open, it is likely that many leading figures would be deterred from running. It is one thing to allow your name to be considered in the current process; it would be much less attractive if the prospect of a high-profile defeat seemed likely.

Indeed, the rise in the quality of vice-presidential candidates generally accompanied the move to the current system where the presidential nominee makes the choice. Most of those selected in recent times have been among the most gifted political leaders of their generation. Those who do not meet that standard were generally chosen by presidential candidates who faced long odds and thought they needed to make a dramatic choice to reconstruct the political environment. Presidential candidates have incentive to choose well. After all, the choice sends a message about their decision-making ability and values.

Convention selection would arrest the growth of the vice presidency, which has been one of the most positive developments in American government in recent times. That evolution has depended to a great degree upon the ability of the presidential candidate to choose his or her running mate and the relationship that arrangement encourages.

Finally, a return to convention selection is simply implausible. No presidential candidate would yield the prerogative to choose a running mate. Presidential candidates now see the national convention as a time to celebrate their virtue, attack the opposing ticket and unify the party. The last thing they would want would be to allow a contentious battle for the second spot to divert attention from those objectives and to foster party disagreements.

Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law. He is the author of The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution (Princeton University Press, 1982) and numerous other works on the vice presidency, presidency and constitutional law.