Political Hay

Mitt Romney and the Conservative Succession

For a GOP nominee, picking a vice president is like picking a Supreme Court Justice.

By 6.12.12

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Two names.

Richard Nixon.

George H.W. Bush.

As soon-to-be Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney starts out on his vice-presidential vettings, this that or the other name floats conspicuously.

The Washington Times's indomitable Ralph Z. Hallow and Stephen Dinan reported yesterday that two different polls of conservative activists show an overwhelming preference for Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Reports the Times:

CHICAGO -- Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants and a rapidly rising Republican star, emerged this weekend as the clear favorite of conservative activists to be the GOP vice-presidential nominee, according to two polls sponsored by The Washington Times.

Conservative activists meeting at the Conservative Leadership Conference in Las Vegas and at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Chicago both said Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, still needs to work on shoring up his conservative credentials, and Mr. Rubio was the top choice for running mate.

In The Washington Times-CLC poll in Nevada, which was released Sunday, Mr. Rubio was the pick of about 28 percent of activists, while in a broader survey, The Washington Times-CPAC poll taken in Chicago, Mr. Rubio was the choice of 30 percent.

What is the real news in this story?

That's right -- it isn't Senator Rubio. It's the sentence that says conservative activists are signaling to Team Romney that there is a real need to understand that Romney "still needs to work on shoring up his conservative credentials…"

Which brings us to Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and, for that matter, a handful of other recent vice-presidential selections in both parties.

The office of the vice presidency of the United States was once famously described by its first occupant, John Adams, as "the most insignificant office" ever imagined by man. Adams may have been the first to complain about the job, but not the last. FDR's Texan John Garner, picked when a powerful House Speaker in 1932, colorfully and typically said the job wasn't worth a "bucket of warm spit." (OK…We've cleaned up ole Cactus Jack's quote a bit. History records he actually said "piss.")

But eventually… a long eventually, maybe, but eventually… this changed.

Vice presidents became real powerhouses. Believe it or not it was the hapless Jimmy Carter who finally changed this, being the first president to give his vice president -- Minnesota's Walter F. Mondale -- a West Wing office and the right to sit in on any and all presidential meetings. Carter made of Mondale what vice presidents had never been -- a partner. And from Mondale on down to Joe Biden, with varying degrees of success, this partnership between president and vice president became a potent part of a number of administrations.

The fierce admiration -- and sheer hatred -- engendered by Dick Cheney is a testament to the potential power of a contemporary vice president.

Which brings us to Mitt Romney, Richard Nixon, and those two polls taken at two different conservative gatherings in Chicago and Las Vegas.

If the vice presidency itself has grown more powerful, the recognition of the importance of the job to the future -- in this case -- of the conservative movement has been less than insightful. The selection of Nixon in 1952 should be the beginning of that understanding.

According to the late historian Stephen Ambrose, a biographer of both Ike and Nixon, Nixon's selection as Eisenhower's running mate was based on four criteria, in the following order of importance:

1. He (and in 1952 the GOP was one long way from picking a she) must be a "card carrying member of the Old Guard [meaning, in that time, a Taft conservative] who nonetheless was acceptable to the moderates."

2. He must be a "prominent leader of the anti-Communist cause."

3. He must be "an energetic and vigorous campaigner."

4. He must be a "relatively young man, to offset Eisenhower's age," a man from the West, to offset Ike's association with the East and New Yorker Thomas E. Dewey's moderate machine, and last but not least in the fourth criterion, the choice had to have actively helped Ike win the nomination.

California's 39-year old Senator Richard M. Nixon met all four of these criteria. He got the job.

Stop.

Eisenhower was a moderate. More importantly, while Ike was getting this presidential nomination certainly because he was a genuine American hero from World War II, the career politicians surrounding him -- men like Dewey, Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, lawyer and campaign manager (and later Eisenhower Attorney General) Herbert Brownell -- were all moderates.

The conservative movement in the day basically consisted of Taft, who would die a year later, and a blossoming core of conservative intellectuals. But blossoming is the word. The young William F. Buckley, Jr. was a precocious 27 year old, his boat-rocking God and Man at Yale published only a year earlier, while National Review wasn't even a gleam in its future founder's eye. Russell Kirk was 34 in 1952, his groundbreaking book The Conservative Mind not to be published until a year later in 1953. Barry Goldwater himself was in 1952 a Phoenix City Councilman running a long-shot campaign for Senator from Arizona that very year. And actor Ronald Reagan, still a Democrat, was beginning his journey from left to right -- voting for Eisenhower that fall.

The criteria for picking Nixon, then, had nothing to do with the conservative movement. In fact, as time would tell, Nixon himself was a moderate. His rise to fame as a fierce anti-Communist in the Alger Hiss affair gave him a life-long image as a "conservative" -- but in reality he was never, ever that as the term is applied to Reagan.

But the picking of Nixon should be seen as Lesson One for conservatives as they rally behind Marco Rubio.

The lesson?

The 39-year old Nixon went on to be a major player in American politics until he died at the age of 81 in 1994 -- some 42 years after he was named to be Eisenhower's vice presidential running mate. Alone with Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nixon shares the record of being on a national ticket five different times. Twice for vice president in 1952 and 1956, and three times for president in 1960, 1968 and 1972. And it's no accident that liberal champion FDR, a Woodrow Wilson progressive favorite, was the Democrats' VP choice in 1920 -- which in turn led to FDR's being the Democrats' presidential nominee four times -- 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944.

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.

And, of course, eight years after that, Reagan's selection of George H.W. Bush sixteen years earlier bequeathed the nomination of Texas Governor George W. Bush. Is it possible George W. could have been governor or president without his father having served as vice president and hence president? Of course…after all, Mitt Romney's Dad George ran for president and lost (to Nixon). But we will never know. What we do know is that George W.'s prominence came from a presidency that was set in motion by Reagan's decision not to follow his instincts on Laxalt or Kemp and instead pick the man we know today as Bush 41. In turn setting the stage for Bush 43 and his famous "compassionate conservative" approach -- another name for moderation -- that moderation famously eking out the 537-vote Florida win and a Supreme Court-decided presidency.

We're not about whacking the former President Bushes here. Both good and honorable men.

The point is that with all this history behind the conservative movement, Mitt Romney's vice-presidential choice now assumes an importance that was unrecognized even by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and certainly wasn't understood when Ike picked Nixon.

For a Republican presidential nominee, picking a vice president has now become the equivalent of a Republican president picking a Supreme Court Justice.

There as well, it took a while for GOP presidents and the conservative base to catch on to the importance of Supreme Court appointments.

Again to Eisenhower, who cheerfully appointed California's liberal Republican Governor Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Setting in motion the liberal judicial revolution known as the "Warren Court." Then, making matter worse, a still clueless Ike compounded the problem by appointing the liberal William J. Brennan as an Associate Justice.

The entire issue of abortion, the source of endlessly bitter controversy from the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 to this moment, came about in part because of Nixon's appointee Justice Harry Blackmun. But Blackmun was one Justice who happened to write the opinion. Roe v. Wade famously was a 7-2 decision. Of those seven Justices who voted in favor were Eisenhower appointees Brennan and Potter Stewart, and Nixon appointees Warren Burger (Nixon's choice to replace Earl Warren as Chief Justice), Blackmun, and Lewis Powell. The other two votes in favor came from FDR appointee William O. Douglas and LBJ appointee Thurgood Marshall. (And again, FDR was the 1920 nominee, while LBJ was JFK's successful pick in 1960.) The two dissenting votes? Only one was a Nixon appointee (William Rehnquist, whom Reagan later made Chief Justice to replace Burger) -- the other JFK's Byron White.

In other words, in what might well be called the late 20th century landmark decision of judicial activism on the Supreme Court, of the seven votes for Roe there were five appointees of GOP presidents. Had Eisenhower and Nixon been more discerning, had, to put a face on it, those five Eisenhower and Nixon appointees been in the mold of the conservative Rehnquist, Roe v. Wade would have been defeated by a 7-2 margin, not favorably decided.

That's a Big Deal. And when Gerald Ford appointed the liberal John Paul Stevens to the Court in 1975, it was no accident that Stevens was at the time a Nixon appointee -- appointed by Nixon to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1970.

This has become so big a deal that Supreme Court appointments have been contentious since at least Reagan's days. Reagan's Attorney General Edwin Meese III took great care to get conservatives -- young conservatives when possible -- appointed not just to the Supreme Court but the lower courts. The furious battle over the appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court was no accident -- on either side. Reagan knew what he was doing in nominating Bork, and the Left, led by Senator Ted Kennedy and his famous "Robert Bork's America," knew exactly what it was doing in fighting Bork tooth and claw. All of this accounts for the fury of conservatives at Bush 41's so-called "stealth" appointment of Justice David Souter -- who quickly turned out to be a liberal. It accounts for the ferocious attacks on Bush 41's appointment of the conservative Clarence Thomas.

But perhaps most significantly, the change in viewpoint of the importance of ensuring the appointment of conservative justices was the key to the abrupt conservative rebellion against Bush 43's appointment of his White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Court. Notably and importantly there was an instant conservative backlash. Why? Because Miers was seen by conservatives as someone who had no conservative credentials -- by this time a flashing red light to conservatives that demanded they oppose even a Republican president on the issue. After furious back stage infighting, and a not inconsiderable public assault on Miers by conservatives, her nomination was withdrawn. The seat instead went to the conservative Reagan Justice Department official and Bush 41 lower Court appointee Samuel Alito.

So.

We're talking vice presidents here.

The selection by a Republican presidential nominee of a conservative running mate -- one who comes well endorsed and enthusiastically backed by the conservative base, the heart and soul and backbone of the GOP -- has now become critical to a GOP presidential nominee.

It is too easily forgotten these days what a ten-strike John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin was considered to be in the day. Enthusiasm and energy flowed into the McCain campaign -- a campaign lost not by the selection of Palin but by the economic blow-up that occurred weeks later, and McCain's response to that event. Not to mention McCain's flat refusal to go after then-Senator Obama and connect the dots on what Obama's background and associates would mean for the core beliefs of a potential Obama Administration. And, of course, the policies that would flow from that state of mind.

And there is one other truth about the Palin selection. Today Sarah Palin is a major force within the conservative movement, sought out by conservative candidates across the land for her endorsement if not a campaign fundraiser. But Sarah Palin is presumably not on the Romney list. Fair enough.

Marco Rubio, however, as the two aforementioned polls show quite vividly, is high atop the vice presidential list -- of conservatives. As are others.

And with reason.

As the selection of Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush has demonstrated, the careers and influence of vice presidents can last literally the rest of their lives. In tragedy, they are instantly president. Barring tragedy, they can become the heir apparent. To this moment, every time Dick Cheney clears his throat, conservatives and the larger world out there pay attention -- pro or con.

Will Mitt Romney pick Marco Rubio as his running mate? No idea.

But what conservatives will be looking for well beyond personality A, B, or C is the obvious central question: Has Mitt Romney taken care of the Conservative Succession?

As conservatives have learned the hard way in American history, the answer to this question has now become a really Big Deal.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.