The spring and summer before a presidential election is the recurring scene of the ultra-secretive vice-presidential candidate selection process. The watertight nature of the search uniquely frustrates the high level of interest surrounding the process, and the result is an endlessly speculative list of could-be choices, dissected by editorialists and talking heads with varying degrees of informative value.
Of course, the pick that would sell the most newspapers is rarely the one chosen (excepting the uniquely disastrous Sarah Palin). In this election cycle, Mitt Romney promises to be a media spoiler: he is a pragmatic, safe and predictable man who will not upset the apple cart with a risky or unproven candidate. He’ll be strategic in selecting someone who will bolster his campaign message or strategy. Above all, he'll pick someone with whom he is genuinely comfortable. With these guidelines in mind, I can think of three candidates who have to be considered serious contenders in Romney’s search – and three others whose faux candidacies are the product of an inventive media cycle hungering for a story.
1. Paul Ryan, House Budget Committee Chairman from Wisconsin
By my reading of the campaign, this budget hawk from Wisconsin has to top Romney’s list. He campaigns well with Romney and would add serious intellectual weight to the ticket. Romney, at times, can be painfully vague: he promises to “replace and repeal Obamacare” without offering much in the way of specific proposals. Similarly, he took issue with the president’s executive order halting certain deportations without elaborating on his own longer-term solution. Ryan, by contrast, is effusively explanatory and specific, down to the most nitty-gritty details of his proposals and projections. Policy wonks and news junkies everywhere are familiar with the “Ryan Plan” to grow the economy; a “Romney Plan” has proven elusive. Ryan’s ability to articulate Romney’s broader ideas and plans is unquestionable. After all, who better than Ryan to counter the Obama campaign’s charge that Romney “refuses to say what spending cuts or tax increases he’d make”?1
Moreover, Ryan’s Midwestern background would play well in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and, unlike some of the Pretenders on our list, Ryan would have no problem playing second fiddle to Romney.
2. Tim Pawlenty, former Governor of Minnesota
For the risk-averse Romney campaign, Tim Pawlenty is another obvious VP choice. During his own failed presidential campaign, Bill O’Reilly painted Pawlenty as a boring square on par with vanilla ice cream. Pawlenty’s retort? “Vanilla is the best selling ice cream in the country for a reason. People know what they are going to get and they like it. It’s steady, it’s stable and it’s seasoned. That’s what the country needs."2
To Mitt Romney, a man whose idea of daring is ordering a hot dog with ketchup and mustard, Pawlenty has to be an appealing choice. While he may be the anti-pizzazz candidate, Pawlenty would certainly do no harm on the campaign trail. In light of the Sarah Palin fiasco, playing it safe in the VP selection process makes more and more sense. If this is Romney’s calculation, Pawlenty is another natural choice. Like Ryan, Pawlenty is a friendly Midwestern guy, and Vanilla Tim likely prefers Romney’s shadow to the limelight.
3. Rob Portman, Senator from Ohio
Only in a Romney candidacy would an unknown candidate like Rob Portman land on the Contenders list. The junior senator from Ohio, that perennially important swing state, Portman is another safe, inoffensive choice who will undoubtedly appeal to Romney. From my vantage point, Portman has done little to distinguish himself while in office, and the vast majority of America would react to this choice with a simple, “Who?”
A Portman pick would signal Romney’s perception that the race will be very close, as it would be a pick driven primarily by electoral considerations. Portman’s best weapon may be his debating skills: he apparently is a legendary stand-in during Republican debate preps, having parroted everyone from Al Gore and John Edwards to Hillary Clinton and the President himself.3 In an election cycle that has waxed and waned on debate performances, Portman would be a sensible choice.
Honorable Mention: Kelly Ayotte, Senator from New Hampshire, as a dark horse who campaigns well with and for Romney and would lure back some of the female vote; Nikki Haley, Governor of South Carolina, if Romney takes this calculation a step further and shoots for a historic choice without leaving his comfort zone.
1. Marco Rubio, Senator from Florida
The buzz surrounding Marco Rubio should not be dismissed out-of-hand; as a young, well-spoken Cuban-American from the critical swing state of Florida, the media can’t help but to feel the excitement. After a remarkably statesmanlike performance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart (of all places), there can be little doubt that Rubio has a future on the national stage.4
Still, a Rubio pick would bear a dangerous resemblance to McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin. Rubio would be red meat for the Republican base, but it’s unlikely he’d do much to peel away Latino support from Obama. His immigration stance is out of touch with the Mexican immigrant community, and his own Cuban-American community in Florida has not shared his dogged support of the embargo for years.5 Moreover, Obama’s recent executive order halting certain deportations will sap the wind out of the GOP ticket’s sails this November (assuming, for a moment, immigration is a priority in November, which it won’t be). If elected, Romney will likely offer Rubio a Cabinet position of some kind, possibly as Secretary of State, but don’t expect to see Romney-Rubio bumper stickers on the road.
2. Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey
As the quintessential no-nonsense tough guy, Christie would be an instant energy boost for the Romney campaign. His blunt, confrontational nature has made him the darling of the right, which all but implored him to run on his own ticket against Obama. That he had a serious shot at the top slot, and declined, speaks volumes about the likelihood that he’d accept second place on a Romney ticket. Christie would be an ideal attack dog, but he’s not going to be satisfied parroting Romney’s views or standing in his shadow. Depending on how vitriolic or spirited the campaign becomes, Christie’s outspokenness may even be viewed as a liability by the cautiously calculating Romney. Christie may very well have his eye on 2016, where he would be an early favorite for the GOP nod should Obama win a second term. The Romney-Christie ticket makes no sense to me and is, I believe, one of those media creations that’s fun to talk about but, like Obama-Clinton back in 2008, too obvious to actually happen.
3. Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State
Wistful neocons continue to propel the Romney-Rice ticket idea into discussion, despite the abject lack of evidence that such a match is desired by either side. Romney clearly doesn’t want to touch the Bush legacy with a ten-foot pole, referring to Obama’s “predecessor” five times in a campaign speech rather than invoking the former president’s name. While Dr. Rice is obviously intelligent and widely respected, she is inextricably linked to Bush’s presidency and his neoconservative initiatives. Moreover, her refutations of interest in the VP job carry no flirtation or hint of intrigue: “There is no way that I will do this because it's really not me. I know my strengths and weaknesses,” she declared during a recent CBS interview.6 Rice has already frequented the circles of power and influenced the nation’s policies and direction, for better or worse; it’s unlikely she’s looking for a launch pad to the presidency and, had she any interest in the top job, equally unlikely she’d need the vice presidency to get there.
Honorable Mention: Bob McDonnell, Govenor of Virginia, whose polarizing far-right initiatives on abortion make him a social-issue distraction; Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana, whose flop on the national stage ensures that, in Romney’s eyes, he is the second coming of Sarah Palin.
Ultimately, of course, only Mitt Romney really knows who Mitt Romney will choose as his running mate. With little real information to go on, therefore, the media cycle looks at serious candidates and props up pretenders to boost ratings and give the campaign season a little spice. Look for substance when Romney finally reveals his choice: someone whom Romney likes personally, who has Midwestern appeal, and who will embrace the second-string nature of the vice presidency. My money is on a Romney-Ryan ticket this fall, with Pawlenty or Portman coming as no-surprise alternatives.