It's peak season in the quadrennial Veepstakes and commentators left and right are opining on the likely winner of this year's prize. The analysis has become quite involved. Some are monitoring the frequency of edits on a candidate's Wikipedia page and scouring the contents of the nominee's grocery cart, searching for any meaningful indicator of a Veep contender's standing in the pageant.
It is no wonder that many find this process, and the rapture it generates, totally irrelevant - a sideshow that gets inordinate attention given the stakes. But consider, for a moment, that Vice Presidents may be more important than we give them credit for.
On many accounts, America was led into a decade-long war in Iraq, not by the President who must bear its legacy, but by his Number 2, "the man behind the curtain," whose quiet but forceful Oz-like wizardry left an indelible mark on this country and, indeed, the world. And although Dick Cheney's particular brand of influence is recognized as largely exceptional, he is a powerful reminder that Vice Presidents do more than just pound a gavel to break ties in the Senate.
Consider his successor and the current office holder, who has none of Cheney's reputation for Presidential puppeteering, and we still observe clear ways in which a Vice President's personal convictions leave their mark. It was just a few months ago that Joe Biden's (presumably unplanned) nationally televised gay marriage "gaffe" left the White House reeling, and a mis-timed expression of an honestly held belief provoked public change of position from the President himself.
And it is not just from their second-tier perch that such influence is wielded. Historically speaking, a full 30% of Presidents were previously Vice Presidents (14 out of 44 administrations), more than half of whom rose to the higher office upon the death of a sitting president. As Sarah Palin fast learned in the last cycle, the 'heartbeat away' factor is real and highlights just how important it is that the second half of the ticket is selected as much for policy priorities as for electoral expediency.
So, as the speculation intensifies, and as all the punditry focuses on what is right for Romney, or for the Republicans, it is worthwhile to remember that the issue priorities and positions of his ultimate choice should really matter to us, too. After all, it may be his or her war that we're fighting next.