There is an old truism in politics that holds that one can go from hero to zero just like that – meaning quick, very quick. The reverse is also true. Struggling front runner becomes nominee literally overnight and our incredibly short political attention span moves on to the next decision.
Three weeks ago the pundits were wondering if Mitt Romney could beat Rick Santorum on Santorum’s home turf in Pennsylvania. Today they’re suggesting he select, take your pick, Condi Rice, Rob Portman, Marco Rubio or half a dozen others, as the perfect running mate. For the GOP candidate the focus has shifted and now American voters, to the extent they are paying attention, can assess Romney’s real ability as a CEO. Can he pick the right person for his Number Two? History would tell us there are no perfect running mates, but Romney’s pick, whomever it turns out to be, will be sliced and diced to the last soundbite for hints of whether he has done what few would be presidents have ever done – pick the absolutely right person.
In 1964, in part to counter his ultra-conservative, southwestern cowboy, bomb throwing (or dropping) image, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater selected a little-know northeastern, GOP establishment Congressman named William E. Miller to run with him as vice president. We know how that turned out. Miller is now best remembered as the star of an American Express commercial that asked “do you know who I am?” Most people didn’t. Give yourself extra credit if you know the answer to the political Jeopardy question – Who was Bill Miller?
The conventional wisdom holds that the second spot on the ticket is all about “balance” – regional, ethnic, religious or ideological – and while such reasoning has factored into vice picks historically, the more common consideration is more personal and practical and often turns a mirror on the candidate rather than focusing a spotlight on the running mate.
The balance arguement put Lyndon Johnson on the Democratic ticket in 1960. John Kennedy absolutely had to carry Texas and Lyndon delivered. Franklin Roosevelt put Texas Congressman John Nance Garner on the ticket in 1932 less for regional balance than to remove Garner as a rival in the Democratic nominating process. Garner swung his convention delegates to FDR in exchange for a spot on the ticket. In 1948 Harry Truman picked Alben Barkley, another trivia question who actually was vice president, mostly because he felt comfortable with the older Barkley who was the Senate majority leader.
The desire not to be in any way overshadowed probably led George H.W. Bush to make one of the truly curious selections in modern times in 1988 when little-know Dan Quayle, a very junior, deer-in-the-headlights senator from Indiana, joined the GOP ticket. The same could be said of Richard Nixon’s pick of Spiro Agnew in 1968, although Nixon knew the former Maryland governor was capable of carrying out the attack dog role that typically falls to the second fiddle.
Did Joe Biden help Barack Obama win in 2008? Or did Dick Cheney deliver for George W. Bush in 2000? Each may have helped the presidential candidate assume a veneer of foreign policy experience, but for the most part neither pick did any harm to the candidate’s electoral prospects, which in the end is the most reasonable criteria for the second pick.
John McCain may have had no choice but to roll the vice and pick Sarah Palin in 2008, a decision that looks in retrospect as reckless now as was unconventional at the time. Palin, I would argue, did do harm, because her choice by the supposedly mature, sensible McCain reflected badly on his judgment. I’m guessing Romney, the buttoned-down, data-driven former CEO won’t make that mistake. He’ll go safe and sober and hope to do no harm.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman would be safe and sober and Romney needs to win Ohio. If Romney is going to run his campaign based upon the twin pillars of his corporate experience and his allegation that the incumbent just isn’t up to the job, then he best use the vice presidential selection process as if he were picking a vice president at Bain Capital. Flash and dash isn’t what he needs, competence is. Romney needs a veep who helps build the CEO-brand, since that is the rationale he has adopted for his campaign.
In rare ocassions in American political history a vice president has helped win an election. More often the best they do is to accomplish the minimum, they do no harm. And – remember William E. Miller – in the best case the vice presidential candidate doesn’t become the answer to a trivia question.