Having listed a group of long-shots for Mitt Romney to consider as his running mate, we hereby continue a multi-column analysis of who Romney should pick, and how, and why. This column will examine those last two questions — the “how” and the “why.”
First, let it be understood just how important it is that the vice-presidential candidate be qualified and prepared to be president on Day One of the administration. This isn’t just a pro forma, substance-less requirement; it’s crucial. Being president is an incredibly difficult job — or, at least, doing a reasonably decent job as president is very, very hard. It’s far more than mere instinct or mere belief in the right principles. High-level politics, like the top rungs in just about any other field, requires a highly developed skill set and a deep reservoir of knowledge of policy, history, personnel, and procedural rules, among other things. It is absurd to the point of stupidity to think that high-level experience doesn’t matter. It is absurd to the point of stupidity to think that familiarity with the ways of Washington is completely unimportant. And it shows a lack of understanding of both history and of human nature to think that just a year or two as a conservative reformer is an indicator that a potential candidate really will be a conservative reformer over the long haul.
If Mitt Romney is inaugurated on January 20 but, Lord forbid, dies of a heart attack on January 21, will his vice president be ready to assume the office?
Here’s my rule: Everybody without at least two full years in a relevant position should be ruled out. Period. The political graveyard is littered with the bodies of people who looked for two full years to be hugely successful reformers, only to lose either their political touch, their moral compass, or their commitment to political principle, once the bad-old-gang who had been temporarily vanquished by the would-be reformer has had a chance to regroup, re-plan, reload, and counter-attack. Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer is a case in point: a good man and decent governor who bombed badly in his re-election campaign and in every subsequent run for office. Another was former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, being touted as the nation’s best governor one year and effectively in oblivion the next.
Just about anybody with moderate political skills can look good during a honeymoon period in office; what really tests the mettle is how one behaves, and fares, once the honeymoon has worn off. (Christ Christie fans: Take note.)
Remember, too, that the two-year rule is a bare minimum, not an automatic qualifier. Nearly four years as governor of a homogenous state like Idaho might be far less relevant to the presidency than two full years as speaker of the state House in, say, Michigan — not that the latter would necessarily be a qualifier, either, but just that it might require better political skills and an admirably thicker political skin.
The question then becomes, what experience is indeed valuable? Other than my hard-and-fast two-year bare minimum, what are the criteria?
Alas, it’s a sliding scale, requiring a somewhat subjective analysis rather than arithmetical precision. But common sense, combined with experienced understanding of politics, should make this subjective task more clear than opaque.
One thing to reject is the current vogue that insists there is some sort of magic in executive experience, combined with a denigration of a legislative background. We should also reject the “Washington is bad, elsewhere is good” school of thought. Case in point for both: Jimmy Carter. Governor, business executive, Navy officer. Never in Washington. Yet utterly inept.
Was Bill Clinton any more adept at presidential leadership in his first few years because he had been governor for 12 years? No; in fact, the early years of his presidency were an utter amateur hour.
Harry Truman, on the other hand, assumed the presidency just a few months after leaving his perch in the Senate — the legislative arena where, by virtue of chairing a key committee that provided essential oversight of military procurement during World War II, he developed highly valuable knowledge and experience. Yet despite often moving in the wrong direction philosophically (according to conservative tastes), Truman quite clearly had a skill set that allowed him to assert vigorous leadership and to navigate the shoals of the lawmaking process.
Much of this, of course, is a measure not of experience but of personal characteristics — but that’s my point exactly: Once someone has inhabited the realm of high leadership for enough time, what matters is more the leadership than the forum: legislative leadership can be as valuable as executive leadership; Washington leadership as valuable as outside-the-Beltway bona fides. And vice versa.
In theory, I would take a 14-year House veteran who has led the Budget Committee just about any day over a 20-month governor of Wyoming, if the adherence to conservative principle had continued with only a few apostasies during those 14 years. It is the totality and quality of the experience, not just the title, that matters.
Which leaves us, in terms of the requirements of experience… where, exactly? Well, to use names sometimes mentioned, it would leave South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley somewhat beneath Florida’s U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. Why? Haley has had a decidedly bumpy ride in less than two years as governor of a barely mid-sized state, before which she served just six years in the state legislature, including as a majority whip. Rubio too has served less than two years in his current post — but, as a U.S. Senator from a mega-state, his involvement with larger national issues is a bonus, plus he served eight full years in Florida’s legislature, including a full term as Speaker of the House. Being House Speaker in a large and diverse and intensely competitive state outpoints being whip in a smaller, much more overwhelmingly conservative state. Anybody who doesn’t understand that legislative leadership is a major proving ground of political skills, and who doesn’t understand that legislative chairmanships are often de facto executive positions, has no real sense of how republican (small ‘r’), American governments work.
Likewise, major business leadership or military leadership or civic leadership, if it required a relevant set of personal skills, could also serve as significant training.
In short, again, the totality and quality of experience matters.
OKAY, LET’S MOVE ON. Romney could probably compile a list of as many as 30 people who have the requisite combination of experience, personal and leadership characteristics, political smarts, attractiveness, and political principles strong and conservative enough to at least be considered as president-in-waiting-at-a-moment’s-notice. The hard part comes in winnowing down that list to a final five or six who offer the best of all of that plus a high ratio of political upside to political detriments.
The reality is that, once the baseline requirements have been met, every single other consideration will be, and should be, purely political. Chris Christie might float your boat more than Tim Pawlenty does; Michele Bachmann might be more ideologically pure than Rudy Giuliani — but that doesn’t matter. Once it comes down to the final choice, politics should rule. Again, this applies only after winnowing the field to a select few. But once that has been done, the only relevant criterion is, who will best help Romney beat Barack Obama? Conservatives should not let minor differences obscure major goals.
To determine this, Romney should use every tool in the political handbag. This should not be a bunch of insiders — the Washington conventional-wisdom cognoscenti who so often wouldn’t really recognize middle America if Dorothy’s cyclone set them down in front of a large-block signpost saying “Welcome to Middle America” — sitting around opining on who might help Romney win Ohio while not costing him Missouri, or on who they think will help attract single women without turning off blue collar men. Instead, this should involve serious, costly, comprehensive polling and focus-group testing, primarily in a group of about 21 states that might conceivably be competitive.
Specifically ask respondents to rate a Romney-plus-X ticket versus an Obama-plus-Biden ticket. Also, do focus groups with voters from the key states. Give them brief biographies of the five or six top contenders and show them video of them speaking in public settings. Then feed them negative information about the candidates, as the Obama team will do, and see how their reactions change.
And while the Romney camp should try to keep its polling and group interviewing quiet, it shouldn’t worry too much if the fact of its poll-testing gets out, as it certainly will. It is far better to get it right than to miss something because you are so worried about secrecy that you leave some homework undone.
If this testing shows, for instance, that U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey boosts the Romney ticket so much in Pennsylvania that he makes the state a dead heat, while not costing Romney anywhere else, that should be a huge consideration. If focus groups outside of Ohio get turned off by a mock attack against U.S. Sen. Rob Portman for being born wealthy and being tied to both presidential Bushes, it almost doesn’t matter that Portman could help nail down Ohio because the overall drag on the ticket would be too big. (Again, these are purely hypothetical examples.)
Now, keep this in mind: Polling in, say, Massachusetts or Utah is useless in this regard. No vice-presidential choice is going to move the former to Romney’s column or the latter to Obama’s. So too with Vermont, Maryland, Nebraska, Mississippi, and probably New York. The key thing is to help with the electoral map, not to help with overall opinion polls.
The rest of us in the public will never know all the polling and group-testing results, but the Romney inner circle should know, and it certainly has plenty of time to find out, every single aspect of all of this.
Finally, even after the choice has tentatively been made, the Romney camp should move heaven and Earth to prepare the new candidate for the madhouse that will ensue when the choice is announced. Sarah Palin, for example, never had a prayer of avoiding a horrid backlash because the McCain team did not have its, or her, ducks in a row.
Now this part of it, unlike the fact of the polling, should be done in secret. The way to do it is to hold over any of the finalists who interview with Romney: Lock them in a room with Romney aides; grill them for hours; tell them what to expect and what to expect to be forced to answer, if they are chosen. Obviously, word of the meetings with Romney will leak out anyway; the key thing is to do all this prep work behind closed doors in conjunction with the meetings, and then tell the potential candidates that any loose lips on their end will automatically disqualify them from consideration.
All of which is to say that, if the Romney folks do their jobs right, not a single bit of speculation or informed analysis from any of us on the outside, myself included, should matter. The Romney team, unlike McCain’s, should know exactly what they are getting and why.
On the other hand, every single bit of public analysis has the potential to help Romney’s folks do their job better — because some new argument, some new consideration, might arise from these analyses that the Romney team otherwise would miss, but that they really ought to plug into their polling and interviewing and strategizing. That’s why, for example, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was dead wrong last week to tell all the outside analysts, in effect, to shut up. Barbour’s message was to let the insiders do all the work — ignoring how often the insiders get things wrong in large part because they ignore outside considerations and so don’t even put those considerations into their equations in the first place.
So… to review:
First, make a long list of about 30, based on both experience and political principles. Second, cut the list to five or six by rigorously combining those qualifications with overtly political considerations. Third, constantly reconsider the process and all available information, including from pundits that might otherwise be morons. Fourth, use sophisticated and targeted political tools, adjudging results on an almost brutally and purely political level, to make the final choice. Fifth, painstakingly prepare the nominee for the “roll-out” of the announcement.
With that framework in mind, then, my next column on this topic will start naming names. First up: the qualified mid-range potential choices. After that, the semi-short list of those who should be in the top ten. Then two more columns, assessing five or six truly short-listers, any of whom should ably fill the bill for Romney.