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Why presidents shouldn’t choose their vice presidents | COMMENTARY

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, right, pays compliments to former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and former state Rep. Stacey Abrams while speaking at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church last month in Selma, Alabama. Ms. Abrams has been suggested as a vice president running mate for Biden.
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, right, pays compliments to former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and former state Rep. Stacey Abrams while speaking at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church last month in Selma, Alabama. Ms. Abrams has been suggested as a vice president running mate for Biden. (Curtis Compton/AP)

It’s clear from Jared Kushner’s sticky little fingerprints and crayon scratchings all over the country’s domestic and foreign policy, that he’s President Trump’s right-hand man.

Why else would Mr. Trump put him in charge of Middle East peace, criminal justice reform and the 2020 campaign all at the same time? Mr. Kushner follows in a long line of such advisers tracing back to Alexander Hamilton — unelected men and women who wield enormous influence from the shadows.

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Americans get it. The presidency’s too big for one person. He deserves to have someone he trusts at his side to help shoulder the burden. The problem is, Americans get no say in who the president picks for the role. That may be about to change.

People like Mr. Kushner are dangerous because they have power with little accountability. They can do what they want (in the president’s name), and if they mess up, someone makes the sign of the cross over them and shuffles them offstage — to be quickly replaced by someone else.

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Such advisers rarely do press conferences, you’ll never see them testifying before Congress, and they can’t be impeached.

Former Vice President Biden may have stumbled upon the solution to the Kushner problem when he announced that he would appoint a committee to select a running mate. Choosing a vice president by committee may be the greatest chance Americans have to influence the selection of the next Jared Kushner.

Every president has had his own version of Mr. Kushner and the role has seen many alterations since Washington’s day. It has been filled by cabinet secretaries, White House chiefs of staff, presidential family members, generals, outside private citizens and, not until very recently, vice presidents.

Walter Mondale was the first. President Jimmy Carter made him his “roving counselor” with permission to stick his nose into the affairs of any agency he wished. Mr. Carter warned his administration that getting a call from Mr. Mondale was like getting a call from the president.

Dick Cheney took the Carter concept and ramped it up about as high as it could go constitutionally when he established a mirror government within the White House of George W. Bush. Mr. Cheney’s success showed the almost limitless potential of the vice president as right hand man.

Having the vice president in this role serves the public interest. Unlike unelected, shadowy figures like Mr. Kushner, not only do Americans get to choose the vice president, the office is accountable in ways that someone like Mr. Kushner can never be. When Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 after being accused of taking a bribe, he left Washington in permanent disgrace. When President Eisenhower’s right hand, Sherman Adams was accused of doing the same thing, he resigned, went back home to New Hampshire, and was forgotten.

Presidential advisers who disappoint the public disappear, but elected officials become the long-lasting subjects of cautionary tales.

The Biden committee has in its hands the real potential to select not only the next vice president, but also the next right hand man (or woman). History must be its guide.

First, they must select someone with a genuine, good relationship with Mr. Biden. Vice Presidents Quayle, Bush and Nixon were marginalized by their presidents because chemistry was not enough of a priority in their selection. Vice President Lyndon Johnson would have been a masterful right hand to President Kennedy, but their poor personal relationship prevented it.

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Second, balance is key. President Obama is reputed to have advised Mr. Biden to consider a running mate with experience in areas where he is lacking. The importance of such advice has been borne out repeatedly by history. Every presidential right hand from Mr. Hamilton to Mr. Kushner has had personal or professional qualities that addressed the deficiencies of the president.

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Third, they must understand Washington. The difference between a good right hand and a failed one often comes down to this. Consider the different results of Hillary Clinton and James A. Baker when each of them served in the role. Mrs. Clinton’s thin Washington resume left her unequipped to deal with the backlash against health care reform, while Mr. Baker’s experience helped Mr. Reagan achieve perhaps the most successful first two years of any president in modern times.

History has shown repeatedly that the president will eventually pick someone to be his right hand and that person will be invested with enormous, perhaps even constitutionally challenging authorities. Institutionalizing the Biden committee method may be Americans’ only chance to influence who is selected for the role.

K. Ward Cummings is author of Partner to Power: The Secret World of Presidents and Their Most Trusted Advisers. Twitter: @kwardcummings.

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