Why diminish the vice presidency?

Given the way Mitt Romney gushed when he introduced Paul Ryan as his VP pick, you'd think he'd not just found his running mate, but his soul mate as well. And what exactly did Romney see in Ryan that made him realize he was The One?

Romney liked Ryan for his "leadership," his "values," his "steadiness" and his "firm principles." But then, right after Ryan was picked, the Romney campaign immediately forced Ryan to abandon each one of those qualities. In other words, you fall in love with that special someone for his independence and fiery spirit -- and then right after the honeymoon, you try to turn him into a doormat.

What is it about the vice presidency that so diminishes anyone chosen? John Nance Garner, FDR's first No. 2, famously said that being vice president wasn't worth "a bucket of warm p---," but the process of diminishment occurs long before taking office. By that time, the vice president-elect is already just the shell of the man whose leadership and ambition and confidence led to his selection in the first place.

In the case of Romney and Ryan, the post-nuptial turnaround was no less dramatic than the buildup. But right after making it public in front of God, their families and some rally-goers in Norfolk, the Romney campaign immediately set about undermining all the qualities Romney professed to love about Ryan.

Steadiness? Well, the first thing that was required was for Ryan to in-large-measure disavow the budget that was the very thing that brought him to running-mate-consideration-level in the first place. One of Ryan's first interviews was with Fox News' Brit Hume in which Hume, to his credit, pressed Ryan on the fact that the $716 billion that the Romney campaign claims the Affordable Care Act cut from Medicare is very similar to the proposals in the first Ryan budget.

Ryan's response: "only President Obama raids $716 billion from the Medicare program. He cut $716 billion from the Medicare program to pay for Obamacare."

Pressed further by Hume, the man selected for his "firm principles," "values," and leadership quickly raised the white flag: "I joined the Romney ticket."

In fairness to the newly minted couple, this is hardly an exception to the rule. In 1996, Bob Dole, an unexciting establishment-approved GOP presidential nominee, needed some political pizzazz (sound familiar?). And wanted a running mate who would, as The New York Times put it at the time, show that "the Republican Party is more inclusive and moderate than it is reputed to be." And so Jack Kemp, who had spoken out in favor of affirmative action and against denying social services to illegal immigrants fit the bill. And immediately after being selected he set about "repositioning himself to try to submerge his differences with Mr. Dole on those two issues."

"You're watching a metamorphosis," said Kemp at the time. "I would be a fool to put my feet down in a position where I can't accommodate metamorphoses." Except in this case, the butterfly is metamorphosing back into a caterpillar. The political calculus in '96 might have been different -- a right-winger looking for a moderate instead of the other way around -- but the process is the same.

Four years later, it was the same routine - this time on the Democratic side of the aisle, where Joe Lieberman had to backtrack on his support for school vouchers to look better on the arm of Al Gore. He also had to make, as the Los Angeles Times wrote, "a conciliatory gesture to Hollywood activists rankled by his crusade against sex and violence in youth entertainment."

And in the last presidential campaign, Joe Biden had to paper over his disagreements with Barack Obama on Iraq. "Joe wanted to be the vice president or secretary of state, and for either outcome he needed to make sure he didn't contradict Obama on anything," a Biden associate told Politico.

God forbid a ticket have enough faith in the public to admit what we all know - that running mates frequently disagree on a few issues. Yes, the media is certainly part of the problem. Any hint of daylight on any issue between a nominee and a running mate is treated as if the press has found the transcript for the 18-minute gap on the Nixon tapes.

It's a strange process for both members of the ticket -- it's not just the vice presidential nominee that's diminished by it. We've set up a system to pick our leaders in which the willingness to lose all self-respect - to say nothing of our respect -- is one of the essential job requirements. After years of achievement and accomplishment, candidates finally get into the contest they've been working towards for most of their lives and they suddenly seem desperate, insecure, and off-kilter.

So maybe we can help by telling future vice presidential nominees that it's OK if they want to have their own opinion once in a while. The media might take to the fainting couch but the public won't. After all, we all know what happens to most marriages when one half of the happy couple completely submerges his or her personality so soon after saying "I do."

(Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is arianna@huffingtonpost.com.)

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