Let the public vet the running mates

/ Source: National Journal

The media crush descended upon the tiny town of Elkhart, Ind., on Wednesday, hungry for a headline. They left empty-handed. Despite a wild flurry of blog-driven speculation, Barack Obama didn't use his visit there to unveil Sen. Evan Bayh as his choice for vice president. (Sometimes, it seems, a canceled softball game is just a canceled softball game.)

That same day, back in the capital, veepstakes watchers packed a luncheon with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, praying he'd break with tradition and throw them a scrap or two about his prospects to be 's running mate. His thoughts on what makes a good vice president? "Discretion," he replied, tongue planted firmly in cheek.


With so much attention being paid to this town's favorite mid-summer parlor game, here's a semi-novel idea: What if presidential candidates no longer kept their VP searches under lock and key? What if, instead, they opened up the process to intense scrutiny and public debate by voters and the media?

They could hold open-press town-hall meetings with each short-lister, essentially taking them for road tests before announcing their final choices. Voters wouldn't get to, well, vote for these guys, but they could at least size them up, kick the tires and let their preferences be known.

Go with me, here.

Doing so would greatly reduce the "risk" that's widely associated with selecting a wild-card running mate. By the time the VP nominees are chosen, voters and the media already would have conducted their own thorough vetting, a process that would greatly diminish the potential for duds or flops. It also might reduce the significance of the entire choice, which, despite the attention it draws during the weeks leading up to the announcements, rarely has an impact on the election's outcome and rarely results in an eventual ascension to power.

And finally, it would reduce the amount of time the press devotes to a story that we all admit we know precious little about. Few things draw the curiosity of political reporters more than something a candidate doesn't want them to know. But few things damage reporters' credibility more than speculation-based chatter. Think of how much better the story would be if we had more facts to work with.

It's an awkward juxtaposition -- serious, fact-based discussions of policy and character (and, OK, Paris Hilton), intermixed with extensive coverage of something that always includes the requisite caveat that, well, none of what we're saying is based in reality because none of us knows anything about it. We might as well be speaking Chinese -- or even better, trying to. Perhaps more than ever, it's essential that voters trust the media during a presidential campaign. Does the current state of veepstakes coverage help us reach that goal?

Of course, the candidates would never go for it.

Why? Partly because they want to respect the privacy of the men and women under consideration. And partly because they don't want to open up the process to a national plebiscite. But mostly because the secrecy lets them throw out the names of short-listers who, while never seriously vetted, serve a purpose by pleasing various interest groups who, while disappointed their candidate wasn't chosen, find solace in the candidate's acknowledgement that he or she was duly considered. (Just ask Dianne Feinstein or J.C. Watts about this.) Hmm... isn't that perhaps the best reason of all to open up the process?