Paul Ryan comes into his vice presidential nomination with more policy baggage than most. We'll vet him obsessively for the next few weeks, and with good reason. But let's face it, he's still running for the second slot. Think about this: The attention we pay to who might be the next vice president of the United States dwarfs by several orders of magnitude the attention we give to the dozen or so people whose job descriptions actually include making public policy for the country -- the rest of the president's cabinet. Who might Mitt Romney pick to head up the Treasury Department? The Department of Defense? To be attorney general? Who, for that matter, would fill Hillary Clinton's shoes as Obama's second-term secretary of state? Those questions are hugely consequential to the functioning of the American presidency.
Still, voters get little insight into their answers. Who will line up alongside the president at cabinet meetings is a decision that lives only the mind of the president-to-be. Should that change?
In the sleepy summer weeks leading up to Romney's picking of Ryan, I handed that thought experiment to several academic experts in presidencies and elections. It isn't completely unheard of, some pointed out, for a presidential wannabe to hint at the makeup of his future cabinet. In 2000, Texas Governor George W. Bush floated the idea of naming the worldly and broadly popular Colin Powell his secretary of state. "I hope his greatest service might still lie ahead," wink-winked then-candidate Bush. But, more normally, we get things like the empty nod both Barack Obama and John McCain gave in 2008 to Warren Buffett as the sort of bloke they'd love to have as their secretary of the Treasury. The experts' opinions varied but can be boiled down to this: Getting a presidential nominee to signal who'd serve in their cabinet is well-nigh impossible, and it also might be a good idea.