Okay, it's time to get on with it: Everybody with a "short list" for Mitt Romney's running-mate choice seems to have most of the same names on it, for the very good reason that sometimes political calculus is something well short of Einsteinian physics. Nonetheless, it is well worth analyzing the potential candidates' strengths and weaknesses, because the entire election really can be won or lost even in the small margin of electoral difference that a running mate can make.
Today we begin (but don't finish) the list of Hillyer's Tremendous Ten – or rather 10 along with two bonus picks – based not on a prediction of what Romney will do, but rather what he should do.
To review the first three segments of this series of columns, I have variously ruled out Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez, Allen West, Rick Snyder, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Condoleezza Rice -- and Kelly Ayotte, although more on her later. I have listed eight longshots, somewhat in fun but not entirely without merit: Artur Davis, Heath Shuler (the least wise), Richard Burr, Frank Wolf, Peter Pace, Carly Fiorina, Liz Cheney, and a name I later bumped up to the top 25, John Ashcroft. In addition to Ashcroft, in no particular order, my numbers 11-25 included Jim DeMint, Luis Fortuno, John Kasich, John Thune, Tim Pawlenty, John Engler, Terry Branstad, Matt Blunt, Dave Camp, Frank Keating, Michael Mukasey, Wayne Allard, Janice Rogers Brown -- and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, although more on her later as well.
I never mentioned, but continue to blow hot and cold on the idea of, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma -- somebody who, alas, is in a nasty spat with Americans for Tax Reform and who oddly considers Barack Obama "a personal friend" and thus might pull too many punches in the fall campaign.
I've also explained the "how and the why" of making a choice, a much longer discussion that can be encapsulated as encompassing "experience, philosophical soundness, and definitely the ability to politically help the ticket." In this year, where the threat to the republic represented by four more years of Barack Obama is so great, it is an unfortunate imperative that the last of those three considerations predominate even more than usual, thus making some names (barely) palatable who otherwise would not be. It also makes it possible that promising candidates who might not have acquired sufficient stature may yet merit a second look.
In light of that last consideration, two names suggest themselves as choices 10B and 10C. First is New Hampshire's freshman U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who fails my otherwise hard-and-fast "two year rule." After listening to Ayotte last week in a small-group setting, I came away so impressed that I am tempted to break the rule. Ayotte came across as a solid conservative, and tremendously thoughtful and, more important, remarkably knowledgeable on what should always be a national campaign's two biggest issues, namely national defense and the federal budget (and the budget's effect on both freedom and on the overall economy). She still breaks my rule demanding adequate experience, but she bears watching.
Choice 10B is Rep. McMorris Rodgers of Washington State, covered in an earlier column. Since I wrote that, I came across an earlier feature on her in which the great U.S. Rep. (soon to be Indiana Governor) Mike Pence said she has "almost a Thatcheresque quality." That's quite a recommendation.
But now we start with choice number 10, who exactly fits the category of "names (barely) palatable who otherwise would not be." As it happens, I hereby predict that Romney will choose this man, an idea not pleasing to me.
Last weekend, Andy McCarthy of National Review Online explained comprehensively why conservatives should see that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is "not one of us." Among other factors, wrote McCarthy, "The brute fact is that, while Christie is not a hardcore statist, he is a mild progressive — which is to say, a ‘compassionate conservative' in the Bush mold who wants to make government ‘work,' not drastically reduce its size and scope."
Nonetheless, Christie offers Romney a boatload of political advantages. First, he is perhaps the single most effective communicator anywhere in today's Republican Party. He talks in ways everybody can understand. His directness is refreshing, and it can cut through every strand of Obama's various webs of deceit. Second, Christie can excite conservatives and Tea Partiers with his in-your-face style, while providing substance that comes across to independents less as ideological than as indubitably practical. Third, he would shake up the electoral map – forcing Obama to spend far more time defending New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and probably New Hampshire, Maine, and even Connecticut than Obama otherwise would. Even if Christie doesn't succeed in helping Romney win an otherwise unreachable northeastern state, his ability to expand the playing field by his persona alone (without adding extra GOP resources) would force Obama to dilute his resources in a way that might hold Obama back in other swing states as well.
Meanwhile, about the only place Christie might marginally hurt the ticket is in the Deep South – but his pugnaciousness, again, can make up for some of his ideological apostasies (in the mind of many southern voters), and it's also highly doubtful that Romney will come close to losing anywhere in the Deep South anyway.
Choice Number 9 is Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. McDonnell suffers from two severe defects: First, close observers all agree the man is almost terminally cautious; and second, his pathetically weak "compromise" on voter fraud shows him to be virtually clueless about the stakes in one of the most important under-the-radar battles in American politics and government today. On the plus side, McDonnell would be almost certain to nail down otherwise semi-swing state Virginia for Romney, and he is one of the only potential candidates with a proven ability to appeal both to Evangelicals and to soccer-mom suburbia at the same time. McDonnell can help reassure various constituencies about the Romney team, while scaring off nary a soul.
Choice Number 8 is Ohio's U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, who of course tops the lists of most establishmentarians and purveyors of conventional wisdom. Weighing against him should be the well-founded impression that he excites absolutely nobody. Also, he re-emphasizes the Romney-as-whitebread meme – silver spoon Dartmouth grad who is also the son of a Dartmouth grad joins silver spoon presidential contender also the son of a presidential contender. Third, in a year in which Bushes remain in bad odor (and in which the Obama team is salivating about making the election again a referendum on Bush 43), Portman is one of the only men in public office who is a creature not just of one Bush presidency but two, with the Bushes being his political sponsors every step of the way.
Weighing in Portman's favor, of course, is the sense that he can add a needed point or two to Romney in Ohio, where a point or two could make all the difference. Also weighing in his favor is that, like McDonnell, he is inoffensive enough to scare nobody away.
Choice Number 7 is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Militating against him is the reality that Indiana already is probably safe for Romney – and if it's not, then Romney's goose is likely cooked anyway. It is also questionable whether Daniels will be embraced by non-Indianans as a more broadly "Heartland candidate" who could also help in Iowa, Ohio, or Wisconsin. On the other hand, Daniels is a tremendously credible figure. He is smart, knowledgeable, accomplished, and extremely good at explaining, and selling, the need for budgetary discipline. He also has proved to be a surprisingly able retail campaigner, coming across as a motorcycle-enthusiast man of the people in his successful Indiana campaigns.
Indeed, while Christie, McDonnell and Portman are conventional wisdom choices to be Top-5 picks rather than at the bottom of a Top-10 list, it is Daniels who truly ought to be ascending "with a bullet," quite possibly meriting the closest attention of all as the summer progresses.
Keeping in mind the idea that Daniels might deserve to top the list come August, we'll stop this week's column right here, with next week's "Super Six" finally completing my Spring Veep series. Until then, conservatives this year may unfortunately need to remember the famous words of the Rolling Stones: "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need."