With the Republican and Democratic conventions upon us, there has been much debate on the authority of convention delegates to nominate candidates for president of the United States, but much less discussion about their role in nominating candidates for vice president and little about the process of the vice presidential nomination in the context of constitutional government.
Along with adopting the rules for the party conventions, approving the parties’ platforms, and nominating presidential candidates, one of the duties of the major American political parties’ convention delegates is to choose candidates for the vice presidential nomination. Under each parties’ convention rules, delegates must nominate a candidate and vote sufficiently in favor of one for that candidate’s name to appear on a party’s general election ballot for vice president.
In recent decades, however, it has become customary for the leading major party presidential candidates to recommend to their party’s convention delegates a vice presidential nominee. The delegates have been accepting these without making any other nominations or even much debate, thereby effectively rendering the vice presidential nomination a quasi-unilateral selection by the leading presidential candidate instead of the choice of the delegates.
As voters have become accustomed to this relatively novel practice, many now think the choice of running mates is the sole prerogative of each of the leading major party presidential candidates and that anything to the contrary would somehow be against the party rules or wrong in some other manner. Leaving the vice presidential selection to the total discretion of the delegates is more representative of the party membership than a unilateral choice by the leading presidential candidate.
A Vice President Isn’t Second Mate
Convention delegates, who represent the members of their party, customarily had chosen their party’s vice presidential nominees through the 1950s in the best interest of their party—often as a compromise—without necessarily any recommendation by the leading presidential candidate. Dwight Eisenhower was the last president and Republican nominee who deferred to the convention delegates instead of recommending a candidate. The current practice of leading presidential candidates’ quasi-unilateral selection of vice presidential candidates has become the standard practice only since the 1960s.
Among other potential concerns, this novel practice is contrary to constitutional government because it violates the spirit of the separation of powers doctrine of the U.S. Constitution.
It is necessary first to understand the office of vice president. The vice president’s only constitutional role, other than being next in the line of presidential succession, is serving as president of the Senate. This duty includes the strictly legislative power of casting tie-breaking votes in the upper chamber of Congress.
Contrary to popular belief, the vice president is thus not an “assistant” or “deputy” president or “second in command,” and the president is not the vice president’s “boss.” The vice president is not part of the chief executive’s administration, and the president has no authority to delegate to the vice president any duties, even though this practice has become standardized since the 1970s. In fact, the vice president is paid by the Senate, not the administration.
Separate Elections for Separate Duties
To recognize more fully the separate nature of these offices, despite their misleading appearance together on general election ballots, consider also that the president and vice president are elected separately. The electors (members of the Electoral College) cast two separate ballots, one for president and one for vice president, and, if no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, the two chambers of Congress separately elect the president and vice president, with the House of Representatives electing the president and the Senate the vice president, respectively.
As president of the Senate, the vice president, together with the Speaker of the House, is one of the two heads of the legislative branch of government, whereas the president is the head of the executive branch of government. These branches are supposed to check and balance each other, in accordance with the constitutional principle of the separation of powers.
For example, if a president signs an unconstitutional bill into law, the vice president ought not to cast a tie-breaking vote in its favor, but vote against it. Furthermore, the vice president is not even obligated to vote however the president wishes on the merits of legislation, but should exercise his good judgment, in accord with his conscience, as a representative of the states and the people. In the early decades of the republic especially, such divisions between presidents and vice presidents were not unusual, and were obviously not fatal to it.
The relatively novel practice of major party candidates quasi-unilaterally selecting vice presidential nominees tends to produce vice presidential candidates who seldom disagree publicly with the presidential candidate who chose them and to whom they are thus obligated. Once elected, it promotes excessively loyal vice presidents who seldom disagree publicly with the president. Instead of being checks on the chief executive, vice presidents are tempted to be sycophantic and thereby to fail their duty to represent the states and the people, to uphold the separation of powers, and to defend the Constitution by voting against bills that are unconstitutional or to which they object on the merits.
To restore the principle of the separation of powers, leading major party presidential candidates should defer to their party’s convention delegates in choosing a vice presidential nominee. If the presidential candidates do make a recommendation, instead of accepting it without opposition or even debate, the delegates should exercise their good judgment, in accord with their consciences, and at least debate the merits of the recommendation and even consider nominating other individuals for vice president.