"Who's he going to pick?"
It's the question on everyone's lips these days. According to every voice in the political community, from the lowliest blog to the inside of the Beltway, the only question that matters these days is who Barack Obama - and to a lesser extent, John McCain - is going to pick for his running mate.
Part of the reason the choice is drawing so much attention is that everyone assumes that the pick will give us a clue about the way the candidate will govern. Will McCain pick a solid conservative or play it safe with another middle-of-the-road equivocator? Will Obama risk his moderate reputation by picking a liberal running mate?
The fuss over this choice is misplaced. Sure, it's kind of interesting to speculate who'll wind up in second place, but it's hardly a question that should make or break either candidate. No one should be basing his or her vote on who the vice president is.
The truth is, the VP just isn't that important.
That may sound like an odd statement after eight years of a vice president who's often said to be the real power behind the throne. But Dick Cheney's power and influence in the White House was virtually unprecedented, and he wielded it entirely at the discretion of President Bush, who would have been entirely free to keep Cheney busy reading to second-graders at Emma E. Booker Elementary School every week. (As Harry Truman put it, the VP's job is to "go to weddings and funerals.")
Until Cheney, the vice president had all the glory of a dog-catcher and all the influence of a Styx album. Until the Carter administration, in fact, the vice president didn't even have an office in the White House. His one real job, according to the Constitution, is serving as president of the Senate, a position usually assumed by a surrogate for actual day-to-day business.
Presidents don't base their policy on their VP's advice. Look at Al Gore, perhaps the staunchest environmentalist ever to hold high office in Washington. For eight years, the Clinton administration consistently failed to make environmentalism a priority.
When Ronald Reagan picked the elder George Bush as his vice president, he knew that he and Bush agreed on next to nothing, that Bush had slammed Reagan's economic policies on the campaign trail as "voodoo economics." As Bush's biographer Tom Wicker put it, Bush took the job knowing fully well that he would "not be a policy-maker" in the White House, and he wasn't.
Even experienced politicians find themselves stifled by the job. Lyndon Johnson was so adept at whipping up power for himself he could form a political machine within a social club - and he did. But after three years in the No. 2 spot, Johnson was ready to agree with John Nance Garner, one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's more ill-fated VPs: The job wasn't "worth a bucket of warm spit."
Contrary to popular belief, the job isn't even a guarantee that you'll end up in the big chair. Barring assassination, only four vice presidents in American history have been elected to the presidency after serving out their terms - John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and George H.W. Bush.
The vice president's only duty of consequence, in fact, is taking the president's place in the event of a crisis - which certainly ought to influence any candidate's decision, for obvious reasons. When Richard Nixon was asked why he picked an unappealing man like Spiro Agnew - who looked and talked like the bribe-tking crook he was - as his running mate, Nixon reportedly replied that it would deter anyone from assassinating him.
It's hard to avoid the suspicion that the position itself is poorly conceived. There's something disconcerting about the fact that fate could thrust such an unimportant office-holder into the most powerful office in the world. Would someone willing to settle for such a position even make a good president?
Maybe that's the real reason it's taking so long for Obama and McCain to find suitable running mates. There's no glory in being understudy to the most powerful man in the world.
As Daniel Webster put it when he was offered the position: "I do not intend to be buried until I am dead."