Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is expected to announce his vice presidential running mate any day now. He could make a conventional pick, for instance Ohio Sen. Rob Portman or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. He could also throw us a curve ball with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the darling of the conservative movement. Mr. Romney has the power to choose absolutely anyone he wants, and no one but Mr. Romney and his closest advisors will have been consulted.
The tradition of the party's presidential nominee picking his own running mate is relatively recent. It traces its beginnings to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who threatened to resign from the ticket in the 1940 presidential election unless the convention nominated Henry Wallace, Roosevelt's unpopular pick for vice president.
For much of American history before then, party leaders would meet privately to discuss vice presidential options before finally settling on someone, often without the approval of the presidential candidate himself. Today, Mr. Romney can thank FDR for swinging the pendulum to the opposite extreme: whoever joins him on the GOP ticket will be his choice alone.
This modern tradition serves Mr. Romney well. It is one of the few decisions a candidate makes in a presidential campaign that is neither spurred by the opposition nor prompted by the media.
But such an important choice should not be left to one person. Mr. Romney's competence to make a responsible decision is not the issue. It is instead whether it is right to permit a presidential nominee to decide by himself who would become president in his absence. Vice presidential selection today effectively creates an electorate of one — and gives to that single person the power to designate his successor as president of the United States, commander-in-chief, and America's face to the world.
This modern tradition is also a missed opportunity for the party's presidential candidate to embrace a more democratic, more exciting and more politically expedient way to select a vice presidential nominee.
If Mr. Romney wants to take a bold step toward democratizing the vice presidential selection process while at the same time serving his own political interests and generating excitement for the convention and his candidacy, he should take a page from Adlai Stevenson, the former Democratic presidential candidate.
At the 1956 Democratic National Convention, Stevenson surprised everyone: He announced that he would let convention delegates pick his running mate in an open vote. What followed was a thrilling one-day vice presidential campaign featuring the likes of Tennessee Sens. Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore, Sr., Minnesota Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, Texas Sen.Lyndon B. Johnson, and Massachusetts Sen.John F. Kennedy. (Kefauver won on the third ballot.) Stevenson's unexpected move energized the party, generated loads of media coverage and created excitement well beyond the convention, though it was ultimately not enough for him to defeat the incumbent president, Dwight Eisenhower.
Governor Romney needs that kind of excitement to bolster his campaign. By leaving his vice presidential selection open until the convention and then announcing that he will throw the choice to a vote of convention delegates, Mr. Romney would enliven the party, induce new positive storylines for the news media and grab the attention of unaffiliated and independent swing voters who don't normally watch televised conventions.
Were Mr. Romney to take the Stevenson approach, he would not only help democratize vice presidential selection but he would also help himself.
Mr. Romney is currently faced with a difficult choice among many appealing alternatives for the vice presidential nomination. No matter whom Mr. Romney chooses, he will disappoint some segments of the party — a party he desperately needs to hold together if he is to win in November. By delegating the pick to the convention, Mr. Romney would in advance disarm the critics who would surely find some reason to disagree with his selection.
Will Governor Romney follow Stevenson's lead? He should, but he likely won't. The vice presidential selection will be Mr. Romney's first presidential decision. It will be perhaps his only campaign opportunity to show by deeds instead of mere words that he is a conscientious candidate who can make responsible choices when given the opportunity.
But letting the convention pick his running mate would be a stroke of genius that serves the interests of both democracy and transparency as well as Mr. Romney's own strategic interests as a presidential candidate.