The case for political considerations in Veep picks

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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How should Mitt Romney pick his veep? This is a hot topic of late. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion.

Over at the Daily Beast, David Frum quotes a political scientist who advises eschewing political calculations:

Think of it this way: it’s tough being a politician. No matter what your goals are, you’re always having to compromise. The vice-presidential nomination is one place where playing politics doesn’t seem to work. So I suggest forgetting the cleverness and forgetting about the idea that voters choose candidates based on their looks, and just picking the person you actually think would do the best job. Ruling out the Quayles, the Bidens, and the Palins . . . that wouldn’t be such a bad idea, both as politics and as policy.

This, of course, sounds like terrific advice. That’s precisely why it is trite.

Perhaps the only recent example of a nominee actually following this advice was George W. Bush, who selected the eminently qualified Dick Cheney. At the time, Cheney was well-respected by the mainstream media, and his selection was generally considered a “governing choice,” since he only delivered the state of Wyoming. (In a sense though, even Cheney was a political choice, because Bush benefited by having someone experienced on the ticket.)

Regardless, Cheney turned out to be a highly controversial vice president. I’m not sure he was the right pick in 2000 — and I’m even less sure it was wise to keep him on the ticket in ’04, especially considering his health problems. Interestingly, the fact that Cheney had no personal political ambitions was widely viewed as a positive thing. I’m not so sure it was. Our system is designed to pit ambition against ambition. One can only wonder how different the Bush years might have been had he chosen someone else.

The other recent picks were political calculations as much as anything else. John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin empirically boosted his poll numbers (after picking her, he led in the polls until he suspended his campaign to handle the economic crisis). Though Palin has become a punching bag, McCain, reportedly wanted to pick Sen. Joe Lieberman. That would have been a disastrous choice for a nominee already distrusted by many in the GOP base. Given the alternative, McCainmade the right choice.

Bill Clinton’s selection of Al Gore might have been unorthodox, but it was still a political pick. Rather than balancing the ticket geographically and ideologically, he doubled down on the young, southern, “new Democrat” image. This might have been unconventional, but it was still shrewd. It was a branding decision.

Ronald Reagan would probably have preferred to run with conservative friends like Paul Laxalt or Jack Kemp, but instead he chose his old nemesis: George H.W. Bush.

It was a political choice, to be sure, and it worked.

Bush turned around and selected a young rising star conservative named Dan Quayle, who was immediately mocked. But Bush-Quayle still won in ’88, and I don’t recall Quayle ever actually botching anything substantive. (By most accounts, George H.W. Bush’s administration was well-run and generally successful.)

I could go on. Eisenhower’s selection of Richard Nixon was a political choice (it balanced the ticket with a younger and more conservative running mate). John F. Kennedy’s selection of LBJ was clearly a political choice; Johnson actually delivered Texas, and probably the election.

Interestingly, most of the political choices have also turned out to be pretty solid governing choices, too (the free market works!).

This brings us to Mitt Romney. He still has a problem with the base, and he will have three built-in general election opportunities in which to excite them: The convention, the debates, and the running mate selection.

Romney’s gut may tell him to make a safe “governing” pick like Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Sen. John Thune, or Sen. Rob Portman. (Since McDonnell hails from Virginia and Portman hails from Ohio, these picks would also be, to an extent, political.) But they do nothing to fix Romney’s lingering problem with the conservative base. Instead, they would reinforce his image as a safe, moderate running a paint-by-the-numbers campaign.

A better decision, I would argue, would be to look to Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Chris Christie, or Rep. Paul Ryan. These are also smart governing picks, but they would go much further toward also balancing the ticket philosophically and stylistically. Let’s see what he does.

Matt K. Lewis