For a GOP nominee, picking a vice president is like picking a Supreme Court Justice.
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The irony here for Romney and conservatives is that at this point they badly need each other. Romney needs an energized conservative base to both defeat Obama and govern successfully. Without enthusiastic conservative support, Obama wins.
And conservatives? They are in fact the heart and soul of the modern GOP. They have, in many ways, de facto control of the party. It is in the conservative interest to make absolutely certain that in electing Mitt Romney they are paving the way for, yes indeed, a post-Romney presidency.
Understanding that if in fact Romney is elected, at some point whether in four or eight years, there will be a Conservative Succession.
And that Conservative Succession must be provided for now — in 2012. With a young conservative who has Nixonian staying power, and who himself or herself is willing and able to bring along other young conservatives as he or she makes his way through the corridors of power.
No better lesson here can be provided in terms of this issue than Ronald Reagan’s selection of his then-rival, George H.W. Bush, to be his 1980 running mate. Reagan and the moderate Bush had gone head-to-head in the 1980 primaries, with Reagan the undisputed winner.
Alas, the vice presidential selection process was still not as organized as it now is.
At the Detroit convention chaos unfolded as there was a sudden attempt to put former President Gerald Ford, a moderate, on the ticket. The attempt failed, thankfully, when Reagan realized that below the surface glamour of an ex-president running as vice president was Ford’s insistence that he, Ford, be effectively made not just a vice-presidential partner but a virtual co-president. That did it for a horrified Reagan, and Ford — already reported by some in the excited media to be the choice — was out.
Here’s where Lesson Two for conservatives comes in when it comes to picking a vice president.
Let’s let Reagan’s aide and later 1984 campaign manager Ed Rollins describe what happened. In his memoir, Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms, Rollins writes:
The short list for VP was down to Paul Laxalt [the Senator and former Nevada governor, a longtime conservative and Reagan friend], Jack Kemp, George Bush, Howard Baker — and heaven help us — Jerry Ford.
Reagan’s personal A-list included just [the conservatives] Laxalt and Kemp….
After noting that either Laxalt or Kemp would have made superb vice presidents, specifically noting of Kemp that he was a “bridge to the next generation of conservatives,” tellingly Rollins goes on to say:
As usual, Reagan’s instincts were better than anyone else’s. I’d later learn that he didn’t always rely on those instincts. He’d fight like hell for the big things, but give in on the little ones. What he didn’t realize that night at the convention was that nothing was bigger than the choice he’d make in the next few hours. He let his handlers roll him on Laxalt and Kemp.
So in the end, Ronald Reagan acceded to the choice of George H.W. Bush.
As with Ike’s choice of Nixon, the choice had monumental consequences. With the popularity of being Reagan’s vice president his primary weapon eight years later, Bush won the nomination and the presidency. Immediately resorting to his moderate roots, signing on to the famous deal to break his “read my lips, no more taxes” pledge — and causing a conservative rebellion that cost Bush a second term and sent conservatives into the wilderness in the Clinton years.
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