07/23/2012 04:19 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2012

A July Surprise? The History and Historic Possibility of the Vice-Presidency

To overcome an elitist label which is fast becoming the "bain" of his candidacy, Mr. Romney is said to be looking for a vice president that will expand the scope of his social and cultural appeal. Tim Pawlenty, the former Governor of Minnesota, is the focus of much of this attention. The son of a truck driver, he counter-balances Romney, the son of the guy who owned not only the truck, but several factories full of them. Pawlenty is likeable and while far from charismatic, he may be a safe choice, especially after the rather disastrous Palin episode delivered up by John McCain.

Vice presidential politics is complicated. Indeed, selecting number two has been bumpy from the beginning. Under the original constitution, the Veep was the second highest Electoral College vote-getter. In 1800, Jefferson and Burr tied and it took 35 ballots to give the victory to Jefferson, and only after an exhausted Hamilton switched his preference. Jefferson never trusted Burr again and Burr himself evened the score with Hamilton with his dueling pistol. Less than two decades old, our constitutional system was broken, and a bullet had undermined the ballot. We frown upon the governance struggles in Egypt and elsewhere, but establishing law and democracy takes time.

Our fix was the 12th amendment of 1804 allowing candidates from a single party to occupy the top two positions. Slavery threatened even that solution and dictated a north-south ticket from southerner Andrew Jackson's pairing with New Yorker Van Buren in 1829 until Lincoln tapped Maine's Hannibal Hamlin in 1861, only to resort again to southerner Andrew Johnson of Tennessee in 1865. After the Civil War, the north dominated both offices as the victor of the battlefield.

FDR moved the vice presidential calculus more toward sheer numbers; geographical balance remained important so long as the state also had a substantial electoral vote (each state's electoral vote equaling its two senators plus the number of its congressional delegation which varies by population). Kennedy's pick of Lyndon Johnson netted the electorally rich Texas. The same was not true for Michael Dukakis' selection of Lloyd Bentson. Dan Quayle might not be, in the sneering debate words of Senator Bentson, another John Kennedy, but he nevertheless delivered Indiana to the first George Bush, who had his own claim on the Lone Star state. In addition, Quayle's selection added ideological balance to geography and vote count. GHWB needed to make nice to the Republican right in much the same manner as Romney today. Pawlenty's selection would add economic status into the mix.

Even as Obama seems content with Vice President Biden, there have been rumors of Obama switching out Biden for Hillary Clinton. If Romney skips Pawlenty for a trump card (no, not the Donald), the rumors may have substance. Condi Rice, for example, would bring a level of racial and gender diversity to a party that has little, as well as scholarly depth. Unfortunately, she also carries a fair amount of George W. Bush-Iraq war baggage. Moreover, Rice is said to be disinterested and has no elective office experience and may lack the stamina and patience to put up with the queries of lesser intellectual mortals for a national campaign. A lecture-prone helper is the last thing Romney needs to establish the common touch.

The standard teaching is that vice presidential choices run greater risk than reward or matter not at all. But in an election where the economy is puzzling and the electorate is at wild extremes, an historic VP pick might well matter. With or without Rice, the Democrats need not cede the excitement of the sound of glass ceilings breaking to the GOP. Bolder and less likely than a flat out replacement of the affable, but on occasion gaffe-able, Joe Biden would be placing Mrs. Clinton at the top of the ticket. Mrs. Clinton narrowly lost the top spot in 2008 and has achieved international stature since as Secretary of State. If the Democratic Party wants to ensure its legacy and reputation for gender equality there is no better way.

There are side advantages as well: Mr. Obama, as vice president in 2012, could concentrate on the successful implementation of the health reform, which while laudable still remains inscrutable; transfer that success to a genuine middle-income-friendly revision of the tax code; and for good measure, monitor those aspects of foreign affairs either where Obama is highly respected with unrealized strength -- Europe and the Arab-spring democracies or in a region begging for his personal, undiluted attention -- say, the Middle-East.

Far-fetched? Maybe, but only by the reckoning of dispiriting and divisive partisanship, not by the spirit at the heart of America's greatness: its ability to solve problems without sacrificing universal respect for peoples far distant or culturally different. Moreover, there is a certain genius in drawing upon the powerful and persevering ingenuity of Hillary Clinton to revive the excitement of Obama's 2008 victory. At a critical moment in our history, Clinton-Obama would not just be winning an election, but structuring a government capable of lasting achievement and of actually realizing the hopes of average citizens.

The polls are much too close and there are disturbing signs that the President's re-election machinery is still in boxes with the instructions unread. It may well be that the only way to convince voters that a second term is warranted is to make Obama's back-nine, non-consecutive (see Grover Cleveland). While a former president who has already exhausted two terms is precluded from serving as vice president (sorry, Bill), a term as VP for Mr. Obama would not constitutionally preclude his standing for a second term as President in 2016 or 2020. The principal difficulty -- beyond the ego adjustment males generally need in conceding a top position to a female competitor -- would be to determine which of them (Barack or Hillary) would seek a second term in 2016. Having made the ultimate feminist statement, I doubt Obama would think himself bound by "ladies first," and Mrs. Clinton has never been one to say "let the best man win." Yes, figuring our 2016 might be difficult, but it is a difficulty the Democrats would certainly like to have.