Conventional wisdom now has Mitt Romney’s vice presidential “short list” down to four names: Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan, Rob Portman, and Tim Pawlenty. While none of them would turn off conservatives, only the first two would have any chance of actually exiting conservatives and motivating an all-out effort by grassroots activists, without which a Republican presidential candidate is highly unlikely to win.
In that light, let’s assess the state of the field, and some further arguments on why certain choices would be far better than others.
First, Portman. Frankly, if he were from any state other than the fiercely contested Ohio, he would barely be on the list. The Obama team desperately wants again to run against the memory of the Bush presidency/presidencies — and Portman is the only elected official in the country who is so largely the creation not just of one but of both Bush presidencies. That, plus his status as Ivy-League son of Ivy-League father (to join Romney’s as governor-wanting-to-be-president son of a governor who wanted to be president), both of them wealthy, is hardly a good lure for the cultural-affinity blue-collar or hard-scrabble rural voters who can be prone to wish poxes on both houses and refuse to vote at all. Unless Romney’s camp has internal polling showing a very significant boost for Romney in Ohio due to a Portman selection, its decision-makers would be well advised to stay away.
Speaking of Bushies, the latest buzz, largely driven by Bill Kristol both in print and (literally as I was typing the first paragraph of this column) on Fox News, is that Condoleezza Rice has a bigger chance than is commonly imagined. Well, Rice is a very impressive lady, who makes a great speech, is immensely likeable, and is culturally conservative in some very important ways. But she is associated not just hip-to-hip with the younger Bush, but with his most unpopular legacy of all, namely his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Worse, she just didn’t do a good job under Bush: As National Security Advisor, she notoriously failed to successfully referee disputes between the departments of Defense and State; and as Secretary of State, she often went squishy. Finally, Romney has repeatedly promised to name a pro-lifer, but she describes herself as “mildly pro-choice.”
Next up is the strange focus on Pawlenty. The Romney team is said to think Pawlenty’s blue-collar background and some of his interactions with crowds will give him credibility and attractiveness to the slice of the electorate Pawlenty himself dubbed “Sam’s Club Republicans.” But where is the evidence? On TV, he comes across as a well-coifed, white-bread pol who says nothing memorable and little that is passionate. In Minnesota, he won two terms as governor, but both times with under 50 percent of the vote. Plus, unlike Portman, he showed that his (supposed) home-state popularity is utterly non-transferable: He campaigned hard during the primary season for Romney only to see Romney badly spanked in caucuses in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, even though Romney had won Minnesota four years earlier. There’s a reason he bombed so badly in his own race for president: He’s boring. If Romney were up significantly in the polls, boring-but-safe might be a good choice. But Romney is in a real battle. Pawlenty won’t do much to help.
Much more worthy of consideration is Arizona’s U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, who also earned a mention from National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru. Kyl speaks more impressively — with better intonation and cadence, better specificity, and better focus — than Pawlenty. He has a longer record as a conservative; better strengths where Romney is less experienced (defense/foreign policy, law-and-justice); and, importantly, does not create the heir-apparent problem of depressing a conservative movement that wants one of its own in either 2016 or 2020 and who might chafe at the prospect of a lengthy Romney-Pawlenty regency.
Plus, politically he makes more sense than one would ordinarily think. This is a guy whose roots are in Iowa and in the inland West; he knows how to walk the right lines on Western issues. It may be surprising, but it’s still true, that Romney can win a tie vote in the Electoral College, and eventually the presidency, merely by sweeping the south, plains, and inland West (without New Mexico), plus Alaska, without a single Rust-Belt state except for the traditionally more conservative Indiana. In other words, Romney could basically assign Kyl the job of heading up an Iowa-Colorado-Nevada effort while Romney focused his efforts on the Rust Belt and New Hampshire (and Virginia, if he’s still worried about it). Kyl won’t hurt anywhere, but he really could help nail down swing voters in the West and thus provide the ticket a key firewall. (In fact, if he could help Romney nab New Mexico as well, the firewall would create an Electoral majority, not just a tie.)
Moving on, let’s consider Ryan and Jindal. The arguments for both are that both would enthuse conservative activists, and both can explain Republican proposals on hot-button issues (health care, entitlements) in ways that most voters can understand without being scared off. Both have the chance also to appeal to younger voters, and neither is likely to turn off professional women/soccer moms who often swing fairly dramatically back and forth between parties. Both are proven vote-getters; and Jindal adds superb crisis management to the mix while Ryan, like his mentor Jack Kemp, knows how to reach into non-professional ranks (union workers included) and speak the language of “opportunity” in a way people can understand. Ryan also presumably could help deliver Wisconsin to a GOP presidential candidate for the first time since 1984. (Careful polling and focus-grouping would be needed to confirm this supposition.)
The biggest drawback for both is something that in ordinary circumstances would be a benefit, not a detriment — namely, that they are policy wonks with a proclivity towards policy specificity. As long as the specificity is matched by effective political sales pitches, most campaigns would thrill at such abilities. The question here is whether it fits in with the sort of campaign — safe, rather vague on details, unadventurous, coldly calculated not to provide any hard “targets” for opponents to slam — that the Romneyites seem determined to run.
If this is the sort of thing that scares off the campaign honchos, well, shame on them. It will mean they are playing small-ball, in an election that calls for boldness. On the other hand, the last thing a campaign needs is to have its strategy mismatched with its main protagonists’ styles.
Such considerations, much as conservatives may disagree with them, also probably help explain why nobody seems to think the Romneyites are even considering primary-season runner-up Rick Santorum. Yet they really, really are wrongheaded if they haven’t at least run extensive polls on how the Pennsylvanian would affect the ticket. Look, this campaign should be all about winning. If Santorum can help the ticket, it shouldn’t matter one bit whether some Romneyites bear grudges from a rough-house primary season.
Finally, speaking of long shots, there is one who continues to move up among veteran political observers. Despite her newness to the national scene, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte might be a perfect target to sucker the Democrats. Why? Because the automatic temptation on the left will be to attack Ayotte in very much the same way they attacked Palin, with a fury and passion that are over the top. But Ayotte is far more prepared for such an assault than was Palin, who despite all her virtues was woefully unready for the scathing onslaught she received. Ayotte already knows federal issues very well; she also has the toughness of a former prosecutor, the executive experience of serving as her state’s attorney general for five years, and the respect from many of the same talking heads who bedeviled Palin and helped set the template for coverage of her. If the left tries smearing Ayotte the same way they smeared Palin, the result is likely to be a backlash just as heavy from professional women swing voters and others in the middle as it was among conservative activists for Palin. In short, the attacks will backfire.
Ayotte also offers the advantage of hailing from not one but two key swing states, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. She will have been vetted longer and more deeply than Palin was, with far more time available to plan the “roll-out” introducing her to the American public and following up with a longer-term strategy of capitalizing on her assets.
And as was put very well by the blogger Brad Porter at The Crossed Pond, “Ayotte has it all. And, most importantly, she brings it all to the table without significant detriments or lapses to her politicality. She can speak to kitchen table economic issues, without the baggage of CEO-ness. She can talk to new audiences without being radically different from them. She can add to Romney’s message in other areas without undercutting him. She can look qualified without being old hat. She can speak to the middle class family experience, and offers no real purchase for arguments about being out of touch or of a totally alien economic caste in the same way they’ll bury Romney alive with it. She can, in other words, add to the campaign, with no significant subtracting.”
So, I’ll be willing to bet that the list is down to these eight: Jindal, Ryan, Portman, Pawlenty, Santorum, Kyl, Rice, and Ayotte. If I were running the campaign, I’d pick Jindal or Kyl (for reasons explained here), with Ryan offering almost as good an option. (This is, of course, assuming that detailed, multiple polls and focus groups don’t indicate that one particular candidate offers tremendous, game-changing benefits. In that case, the data should rule as long as the private vetting doesn’t find jokers in the deck.) In the end, I don’t think Kyl, Santorum, Rice, or Pawlenty will prove attractive enough to the Romney team — and I’m betting (figuratively) that Romney ultimately will find himself agonizing between either Portman (indicating Ohio’s importance), Jindal, or Ryan, on one hand, and Ayotte on the other. Yes, Ayotte will continue moving up, and will make it to the very final cut. And if she’s chosen, she is likely to prove herself a champ.