How to Pick a Veep: Eight Historical Criteria

By Carl M. Cannon - May 30, 2012

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So far, when asked about the changing demographics of the electorate, the Romney campaign insists that among all these communities, the real hunger is for a better economy and more job opportunities. That may be true, but appearance and atmospherics count, too, and the Republican Party actually has an array of qualified female and minority office-holders who might fit the bill:

Luis Fortuño, the charismatic governor of Puerto Rico, is quite popular in the island territory -- and he helped Romney win the primary there. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martínez could counter Romney’s weakness with Mexican-Americans, although there would have to be a meeting of the minds on illegal immigration first. (“ ‘Self-deport?’ What the heck does that mean?” Martinez said after Romney asserted in a GOP debate that “self-deportation” was the way to solve the problem of 10 million people living in the United States without papers. “I have no doubt,” she added, “[that] Hispanics have been alienated during this campaign.”)

Cuban-American Rubio doesn’t disagree with Romney’s policy positions directly, but he has stressed the need for Republicans to speak to Latino concerns with much more sensitivity. And the mere presence on the ticket of Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire or Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin would force Democrats to modulate their rhetoric about the GOP’s supposed “war on women.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal or South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, both of Indian descent, would be the first Asians on anybody’s national ticket.

DOING THE HEAVY LIFTING: Until George W. Bush chose Dick Cheney as his running mate, few presidential scholars conceived of a presidential nominee who would name someone to actually help him govern.

In both 1976 and 1980, Gerald Ford and then Ronald Reagan noodled around with the idea of a Dream Ticket (Ford-Reagan in ’76 and Reagan-Ford in ’80), but the idea ran aground on the shoals of discussion of a co-presidency, which seemed anathema to the way the White House works.

George W. Bush didn’t look at it that way, either before or after taking office. The Bush-Cheney model was the culmination of a trend that started when Harry Truman took over for Franklin Roosevelt -- and was utterly unprepared because FDR hadn’t briefed him or allowed him to attend meetings. The modern vice presidency is a powerful office. Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, and Al Gore, in particular, had primary responsibility in specific policy areas.

If Romney were to consider this factor, who might he choose?

Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie are popular governors who’ve wrestled with profound budget shortfalls -- and done so successfully. So did Jeb Bush, who helped begin the process of improving Florida’s public schools. Rob Portman is a seasoned Washington hand who ran the White House Office of Management and Budget. Speaking of the federal budget, Paul Ryan has ideas on how to tame it, and would command the respect of Congress -- the Republican side of the aisle, anyway.

RUNNING ALONE: If you slipped sodium pentothal into Mitt Romney’s Sanka, he might tell you -- as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower and either of the Roosevelts would have if given truth serum -- that he’d just as soon run alone. A running mate means time and trouble and the potential for mistakes.

Some candidates don’t share the spotlight easily. In 1976, Carter pollster Pat Caddell noticed that when Mondale’s name was added to the question, Carter picked up two or three percentage points. The candidate was instructed to mention Mondale’s name prominently. He agreed -- but could barely bring himself to do it. In a major speech in San Francisco two days before the election, Carter never mentioned Mondale once.

Most presidential nominees think they can do it on their own, and they are usually right. Gerry Ferraro was supposed to help Democrats ride a huge “gender gap” to victory in 1984. She couldn’t deliver her own congressional district. Dan Quayle was envisioned as the bridge across a generation gap. He was bogged down by questions about a National Guard billet he secured during the Vietnam War and the perception that he was too callow to be president.

So for some nominees the next best thing to running alone is running with someone bland, seasoned, and safe. Who would that be in 2012? Tim Pawlenty is the name that springs to mind. Pawlenty wouldn’t even criticize Romneycare when he was running against the guy. Also, Daniels chose not to run at all, apparently out of concern for his family. Portman certainly knows how to avoid unwanted attention.

HAIL MARY: George Condon of National Journal recently alluded to this category, in the sense of a desperate heave at the end of a football game. It rarely produces a touchdown. It might be called Hail Gerry (or Hail Sarah). It’s also what Reagan was trying to do with his clunky Richard Schweiker gambit in ’76. It almost never works -- if it’s perceived this way.

But one person’s “Hail Mary heave” is another’s confident downfield touchdown pass.

Is Rubio a stretch after two years in the Senate -- or is he the running mate who gets the Republicans right with Latinos? Ditto for Susana Martínez and Luis Fortuño. What if Portman is chosen to help Republicans carry Ohio, but they don’t? Is that a sign of a Hail Mary that failed -- or a weak nominee?

Ron Paul would be a Hail Mary, but if Romney decides to shore up the GOP base with Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich, would that qualify? Gingrich, who does not lack for confidence, exhibited refreshing candor when asked about his chances of being chosen recently. “Inconceivable,” he replied. “Would you pick me as a vice presidential nominee?”

As for the last Republican to take this step, he’s never publicly admitted that Sarah Palin was in any way a desperate decision. Leaving that aside, what does he think Romney’s criterion should be?

“The absolute most important aspect is if something happened to him, would that person be well qualified to take that place?” John McCain told ABC’s Jake Tapper. Asked for his “best advice” on what to look for, McCain added, “I think it’s a person that he knows that he could trust.” 

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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