The GOP Veep stakes have begun. As Mitt Romney appears likely to sweep today’s primaries, especially in the critical state of Wisconsin, all eyes have begun to shift from his battle for the nomination to his November fight with President Obama. And, the first “presidential decision” a candidate makes is to choose a running mate.
The choice is always important because it can allow a candidate to jump start his or her campaign and few candidates need more of a jump start than Romney. Given the negative campaign he has run, the primaries have only served to lower Romney’s favorable ratings. And, given the nature of the GOP base, the primaries have forced Romney into ever increasingly uncomfortable positions, further to the right than he would have liked to be sure, but also positions at odds with his own record. And while his campaign strategists may think the electorate is like an etch-a-sketch, many voters, aided by Youtube videos, have longer memories than can be offset by a quick hit of the reset button.
The debates in the autumn will be a chance for Romney to reset the campaign, look into the cameras and say, in essence, you’ve heard a lot about me, but look and listen to me here and now and decide if you like what you see. Certainly, Ronald Reagan’s performance in the sole debate in 1980 quieted fears that he was a bit unbalanced: The man who had once said that he believed trees caused air pollution became a distant memory as viewers watched the confident, calm debater with a good turn of phrase cut an incumbent president down to size. That said, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, Romney is no Reagan.
So, Romney’s choice of a running mate will be the one time he has complete control over a decision that can actually help him reset the campaign. The decision is solely his. He can roll out the decision as he likes. He can choose to make a statement with his choice or he can play it safe.
Veep selections are not usually consequential. The most important thing is that the choice not harm a candidate. It is human nature to over-learn the lessons of the last war, so it is a pretty safe bet that Romney will be looking for a relatively safe choice. No one in the GOP wants a repeat of 2008 when, facing a similar situation – an unenthusiastic base and a gender gap in the polls – John McCain followed the North Star to the worst choice in history. Romney must choose someone who instantly looks like they could be president in a heartbeat. There can be no Hail Sarah pass this time.
In yesterday’s Washington Post, Chris Cilizza noted that Republican presidential candidates always have a need to unite the two wings of their party and that the veep selection can help achieve that. Reagan, from the zelanti wing of the party, chose Papa Bush, from the establishment wing. Papa Bush, in turn, chose one of the zelanti, Dan Quayle. Dole selected Kemp. Thus, Cilizza concluded that Romney’s choices came down to three: Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Bobby Jindal, or Gov. Chris Christie. Of the three, Christie might be the most electrifying but he also has held some positions that do not sit well with the Tea Party, admitting that humans play a role in climate change for example, and it is an open question how his bellicose personality would play outside of New Jersey and over the long haul of a campaign. Rubio is a rising star, but does not yet have the experience to convey the confidence that he could become president, a fact that would be reinforced by the perception that the choice was motivated not by principle, or even by a desire for ideological balance, but by a pandering desire to win more Hispanic votes. Jindal is largely unknown outside of Louisiana, except for a weak effort giving the GOP response to President Obama’s first State of the Union, but the base loves him and his ethnic heritage would offset the perception of the Romneys as too wealthy and too WASPish for an increasingly diverse nation.
The most consequential, and counter-intuitive, choice in recent decades was Bill Clinton’s decision to select Al Gore as his running mate in 1992. Instead of going for ideological and/or geographic balance, Clinton recognized that he needed to reinforce his image as a new kind of Democrat and so he chose someone like himself: young, southern, moderate. Gore, unlike Clinton, had displayed his talents in Washington, not in a Governor’s mansion, so he brought some Washington, and foreign policy, experience to the table as well. From the moment the two men walked out of the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock for the first time to make it official, Clinton’s chances began to improve. Romney, then, should look for someone who, like himself, has been successful in the private sector and can mimic the line that you need someone who knows how the economy works to get the economy going, but who, unlike Romney, brings some foreign policy credentials to the table.
But, who in the current GOP would do that for Romney? Meg Whitman, who ran unsuccessfully for Governor of California was a successful businesswoman but she is pro-choice and that would alienate social conservatives. Gov. Snyder in Michigan was a successful businessman but he has precious little government experience and would, like Palin, appear to be a reckless choice. Who else is there?
One of the reasons it is important to run a good primary campaign is so that you do not find yourself having to make a big choice. Joe Biden was a predictable choice not an electrifying one, but Obama had generated enough electricity on his own during the primaries. George W. Bush contained both wings of the GOP in his own person, so he was free to choose someone he wanted like Dick Cheney. Romney has no such luxury this time and, as far as I can tell, no single candidate who makes you slap your hand to your head and say, “Of course.” You can only hit the reset button is you have created a situation where the reset button is in reach. Romney’s anemic primary campaign means, as Cilizza suggests, that he must find ideological balance in his running mate, although I don’t like Cilizza’s list. Who is on your list?