In a modern campaign, the vice president serves exactly one function: balancing the ticket.
The presidential candidate of either party already knows that he (or he) is going to get guaranteed votes from their core group of registered party members. The people who attend Democratic rallies and load their cars up with Democrat stickers and identify, proudly and to anyone who is within earshot (but desperately trying not to listen), as a "card-carrying Democrat," are going to vote for President Obama in this election, but they were always going to vote for the guy (or guy) whose name was closest to the word "Democrat" on their ballot. Democrats have their core group of loyal and dependable voters, and Republicans have theirs (they're called "soft votes"). Every other category you can reduce a candidate to (race, gender, socioeconomic background, age) comes with its own set of soft votes. Not every woman will vote for a female candidate just because she happens to be a woman, but a small core group of women will, much in the same way that I'm in the soft vote core group of people who will vote for any candidate who talks openly about liking comic books.
But no one core group is big enough to elect a president, so elections live and die in the middle, with the moderates (and occasionally with outlier groups -- people who regularly never vote but make an exception for a particular candidate). What this means is that a vice president is chosen to balance the ticket and bring in their own soft votes.
In 2008, President Obama chose Joe Biden as a response to any moderates who were worried that Obama was too young and too inexperienced and too not-white to be president. John McCain chose Sarah Palin as a response to any moderates who were worried that McCain was a too on-the-nose visual representation of a party that was rapidly starting to look like and exclusively speak for old white men. Biden was old and white and smiled a lot. Palin was young and exciting and a woman.
Choosing Palin was a risky and bold move that ultimately resulted in embarrassing failure, but it was, briefly, a very smart move. In the election of 2008, Obama had so much buzz and momentum going that Democrats were already planning on how they'd redecorate the White House (they decided to stick with white). But then Sarah Palin showed up, and this random governor that no one had heard of was suddenly there to breathe life into the fading Republican Party. Eventually, we'd learn that she wasn't the strongest choice (and that is the nicest and most polite way I can describe that situation), but when she was first given the national spotlight, no one can deny that she was funny and refreshingly casual and downright charming. She gave speeches that were sharp and relatable and fun.
She did exactly what she was supposed to do. She balanced the Republican ticket and assured everyone that the GOP wasn't the Old White Guy Party, and she made some Democrats really scared.
The Palin gamble didn't work out, but it could have. If the GOP had done a better job training her to get her more prepared for the spotlight, or if the media hadn't so quickly fallen in love with highlighting her many flaws, or if the people who dug into her past to uncover previous political scandals weren't paying close enough attention, Palin would have just come off as a charming and likable ticket-balancing politician with folksy, down-home charm.
And then she would have been the vice president of America.
She's not, and that's very good, but the fact of the matter remains: She was in a position where she could have potentially been the vice president, which means she was in a position where she could have been the president. George H.W. Bush was admitted to the hospital with an irregular heartbeat, a condition that could have led to something benign and simple OR could have preceded a heart attack. If Bush had died as a result of these complications, Dan Quayle would have been president, a man who, at the time of Bush's surgery, had an approval rating of 19.
Why It Needs to Change
By choosing VPs based on how well they balance the ticket (that is, by focusing on playing good politics instead of picking good politicians), we're ensuring two things: 1) the chances that we'll ever get two brilliant political minds in the same White House at the same time are getting smaller every year and 2) in the event of an assassination or resignation, we're making someone next in line for the presidency despite the fact that they might be wildly unqualified for the position.
Sarah Palin and Swingin' Joe Biden were terrific ticket-balancers, but would either of them make a great president? We have no idea, because those just aren't things we're trained to look out for in election season.
Instead we'll hear that Biden and Obama probably want to rub each other's butts.
Changing the vice presidency would actually be tremendously helpful for everything on this list. If we gave the VP more power (Cheney actually wielded a ton of power as a VP, but upon taking over, Swingin' Joe immediately reduced the role of VP back to that of an adviser), there would be less work for the president himself, which would make the presidency less of a killing job (which means it would probably attract fewer lunatics). Additionally, turning the vice presidency into a position of power and importance means that we wouldn't have to look at potential VPs just based on how well they'd balance the ticket; we'd have to examine them with the same level of scrutiny we use when we vet presidents. No more Dan Quayles would be able to sneak into the White House because people would be paying attention.
It's probably impossible to change the current system at this point, but I'm still trying to tell a crabby, old American Government professor to suck it, so I can't entertain "probably impossible" as an option. I did my job by writing about this (which I believe makes me the John Adams of Cracked.com, a distinction I'm absolutely fine with, assuming that it makes Soren the tiny James Madison), and the rest is up to you. So, when you go into the voting booths this November, vote for ... this article, I guess?
Let's say that. Vote for this article this November.
Daniel O'Brien is Cracked.com's senior writer (ladies), and still secretly considers the presidency a backup plan if this whole Cracked thing falls apart (wildly influential American Government professor whose name escapes me).
Check out more from Dan in 5 Presidential Elections Even Dumber Than This One (Somehow) and The 5 Most Badass Presidents of All-Time.